Politics

Supreme Court to decide whether sons of Russian spies are Canadian citizens

Jim Bronskill - The Canadian Press

May 10, 2018

The Vavilov brothers in Bangkok. (Family photo)

The Supreme Court of Canada will help settle the controversy over whether the Toronto-born sons of Russian spies are actually Canadian citizens.

A high court decision Thursday grants the federal government a chance to fight a Federal Court of Appeal ruling that effectively affirmed the citizenship of Alexander and Timothy Vavilov.

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Alexander, 23, and Timothy, 27, were born in Canada to parents using the aliases Donald Heathfield and Tracey Ann Foley.

The parents were arrested eight years ago in the United States and indicted on charges of conspiring to act as secret agents on behalf of Russia's SVR, a successor to the infamous Soviet KGB.

Heathfield and Foley admitted to being Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. They were sent back to Moscow as part of a swap for prisoners in Russia.

Alexander, who finished high school in Russia, changed his surname to Vavilov on the advice of Canadian officials in a bid to obtain a Canadian passport.

But he ran into hurdles at the passport office and in August 2014 the citizenship registrar said the government no longer recognized him to be a Canadian citizen.

The registrar said his parents were employees of a foreign government at the time of his birth, making him ineligible for citizenship.

The Federal Court of Canada upheld the decision.

But last June the appeal court set aside the ruling and quashed the registrar's decision. It said the provisions of the Citizenship Act the registrar cited shouldn't apply because the parents did not have diplomatic privileges or immunities while in Canada.

In its application to the Supreme Court, the federal government said the registrar's original decision was "rational and defensible."

Alexander's lawyer argued the federal reasons for denying the young man Canadian citizenship lead down an "absurd and purposeless" path and that accepting the government's position "would result in uncertainty about an individual's fundamental right to citizenship."

In the interim, Alexander has been able to renew his Canadian passport and he hopes to live and work in Canada — calling his relationship with the country a cornerstone of his identity.

Although it involves the same key issue, Timothy's case proceeded through the courts separately.

In a decision last month, the Federal Court said the ruling on Alexander equally applies to Timothy, making him "a citizen."

No date has been set for the Supreme Court case, to be heard in tandem with appeals by Bell Canada and the National Football League over whether Canadian viewers can watch American TV commercials during the Super Bowl game.

Normally, Canadian ads can be substituted in such programming, but the federal broadcast regulator ruled that the keenly anticipated U.S. commercials could be seen by Canadians watching American channels.

The Supreme Court said Thursday that both the citizenship and Super Bowl cases "provide an opportunity to consider the nature and scope of judicial review of administrative action."

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