Facing deportation, Nova Scotia woman to finally become Canadian citizen

Debra Spencer, 33, came to Canada from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent when she was eight years old. But she never got her citizenship, and faced deportation as an adult following a criminal conviction.

Debra Spencer came to Canada when she was 8, but faced deportation for criminal conviction as adult

Debra Spencer, left, is shown Friday with her son, Jonathan, and her sister, Kelley Pozzolo. (Erin Moore/For CBC)

Her suitcase was packed, but it turns out Debra Spencer won't be going anywhere after all. And she couldn't be happier.

Spencer, 33, came to Canada in 1993 when she was eight years old, adopted by a Nova Scotian family from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

Her adoptive mother, Bobbi Spencer, started a citizenship application soon after she arrived, but it stalled and was never completed so Debra remained a permanent resident.

In 2015, she was ordered deported back to St. Vincent after completing a two-year prison sentence for being an accessory after the fact in the homicide of David William Rose.

The Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act states any permanent resident who commits a crime and receives a sentence of more than six months must be deported without the right to appeal.

For more than two years, Spencer has been waiting for the knock on her door, telling her it was time to go. Instead, last Tuesday she got a phone call telling her she could stay because she was getting her Canadian citizenship.

"I dropped my phone and I screamed and I cried," she said. "It feels good. I don't have to have someone come to my door and take me away from my family. It just feels it's not real."

Debra Spencer is shown at age 16. (Supplied to CBC)

Spencer's lawyer, Emilie Coyle, said she was at her "wit's end" trying to stop Spencer's deportation. She filed an application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, which was denied. Spencer's family said she suffered abuse and trauma in St. Vincent and has intellectual challenges.

As a last ditch effort, Coyle helped Spencer file an application for Canadian citizenship. It was a long shot, but Coyle said an immigration lawyer told her to try it.

"It's not well known, but he told me the Citizenship Act was amended so that Section 5.1 basically tries to give adopted children the same rights as Canadian-born children and that's what we went with," she said.

It worked. While the official documents are still being processed, Spencer will soon be able to call herself a Canadian citizen 25 years after she was brought to the country. Her deportation order is null and void.

Spencer's sister, Kelley Pozzolo, has been by her side through it all and said she's still adjusting to the fact Spencer won't be deported. Pozzolo said she was convinced Spencer would die if she had been sent back to St. Vincent.

"I'm relieved, I'm grateful and I'm getting over the unending terror that has been in my heart for years now," she said.

Abdoul Abdi is shown at Halifax provincial court in this 2013 file photo. (CBC)

Spencer's case shares similarities with that of Abdoul Abdi, who came to Nova Scotia as a refugee when he was six years old. Abdi didn't become a Canadian citizen and is facing potential deportation to Somalia after serving four years in prison for crimes including aggravated assault.

Abdi's lawyer, Benjamin Perryman, doesn't think the outcome of Spencer's case will help his client. Unlike Spencer, Abdi wasn't adopted; he was taken into foster care soon after he arrived.

Perryman said if anything, Spencer's case shows "how arbitrary the system is since adoption provides protection but remaining in care does not."

Abdi came to Canada as a child. (Submitted by Benjamin Perryman)

Other advocates say there needs to be systemic change to prevent more cases like Spencer's and Abdi's. Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Nova Scotia, said she's happy for Spencer but worries these situations will continue to happen.

"We have not addressed the systemic issues that were at play in this case and that are at play in a number of these other cases, including Abdoul Abdi's case," Halpern said. "And we need to think about the racism inherent in our systems that allows for something like this to happen."

Spencer said she's been following Abdi's case and she hopes he gets the same opportunity that she has now, to start over with his family.

Spencer plans to continue living with her sister and said she has a job lined up at a gas station. But mostly she's looking forward to raising her new baby, Jonathan, born four months ago.

"It means I can start planning a future for me and him. And I can sleep peaceful, my nightmare is over."

About the Author

Erin Moore

Erin Moore is a journalism instructor at the Nova Scotia Community College and a former CBC reporter.