Canada·Go Public

Woman, 99, denied citizenship despite living in Canada since 1933

A 99-year-old woman who was denied Canadian citizenship and a permanent health card because she couldn't produce her birth certificate gets help from Go Public team. Only after CBC News investigated, was Joan Stirling granted citizenship.

Citizenship and Immigration doesn't know or understand its own rules, says critic

Woman denied citizenship despite living in Canada since 1933

6 years ago
Joan Stirling, 99, had no right to health care. Citizenship and Immigration doesn't know or understand its own rules, says critic 2:14

A 99-year-old woman is going public after she was denied Canadian citizenship and a health card despite living in Canada for more than 80 years.  

Joan Stirling's application was rejected by Citizenship and Immigration Canada because she  couldn't produce a specific piece of identification — her birth certificate from almost a century ago.

Her friend Diana Watson has been fighting since 2012 to get Stirling recognized as a Canadian citizen, in part, so the senior could access public health care. 

Watson provided Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) with a mountain of proof, more than 20 documents that tracked Stirling's birth in the U.K., her arrival in Canada, and her long history here.  

The paperwork shows Stirling has been living in Toronto since the 1930s, working, paying her taxes and voting in almost every election. But Watson says that one piece of identification — Stirling's birth certificate — was hard to track down even though she had contacted authorities in the U.K.

Despite all the other evidence, Watson says CIC refused to provide Stirling with a citizenship certificate. Only after Go Public investigated was Stirling granted citizenship

"It does seem ridiculous. It's just total bureaucracy. I sent this huge file off … and I simply got a one-page letter back saying we need a birth certificate and that was it and everything came to standstill," Watson told Go Public. 

Stirling calls herself Canada's oldest "non-person," but her situation isn't unusual according to critics who say our citizenship laws are so convoluted, even the people paid to implement the rules don't understand them.

Crossed border 'at a different time'

Stirling, who was born in London in 1916, made her way to the U.S., and then crossed the border into Canada in 1933 when she was 17. 

"Nobody ever asked me at the border why we were crossing or how long we were going to stay or anything," she says. 

Stirling never married, never got a driver's licence or passport, and never needed a health card, until just a few years ago. 

Diana Watson has been fighting to get Joan Stirling citizenship and a health card since 2012. (CBC )

Watson says she wanted to help Stirling for two reasons.

Given her age, she says chances are Stirling will need access to the health-care system. Watson was also worried Stirling's savings would run out and the senior would no longer be able to pay for her retirement home. Without a health card, she wouldn't have access to long-term government care.  

"What would I do when she can't pay her bill at the retirement home? My understanding is I'd take her to the acute care hospital and say here she is — she can't pay her bills — you're going to have to take her," Watson says.

"Or does she go to a shelter at the age of 104? We're hoping her money will last that long. I don't know." 

She was able to get Stirling several temporary health cards, first through a program for the homeless (even though Stirling was never homeless), then through Ontario's Ministry of Health, but every year it's been a struggle. The province requires proof of citizenship or status to provide a permanent health card. 

Stirling's most recent card expires at the end of September, and Watson wasn't sure it would be renewed. That's when she contacted CBC News.

Go Public contacted Don Chapman, the founder of Lost Canadians, an advocacy group for those who have lost or were never granted Canadian citizenship. At one time, Chapman estimates there were one million of these so-called "lost Canadians."

He's been credited with forcing the federal government to make changes to the Citizenship Act in 2009 and again earlier this year, which retroactively granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people.

Don Chapman advocates for people who have been stripped of or denied Canadian Citizenship. He's the author of The Lost Canadians. (CBC)

But Chapman says there are still problems. 

"I have people calling or emailing me almost every day with similar type stories," he says, concluding Ottawa has made a mess of the system by making amendment after amendment to citizenship laws. Chapman believes a completely new Citizenship Act is needed.

"CIC is clueless when it comes to their own rules. The only consistency with CIC is they're inconsistent. I can catch them [making] different statements on different days with different people. They just don't know their own laws."

In fact, Chapman said Watson's efforts were a waste of time because Stirling has been a Canadian citizen all along — even if CIC officials failed to figure that out. That's based on an old law that automatically gave British subjects in Canada citizenship if they were living here prior to 1947.

Go Public gets results

Go Public took Stirling's case to Citizenship and Immigration Canada and officials there agreed to look into her case.

The result?

It was determined Stirling was already a Canadian citizen based on the latest amendments to the Citizenship Act made in June. Those changes recognize that old law from 1947.

That came as news to both Stirling and Watson who were happy to hear Stirling will get her citizenship certificate and a permanent health card will follow. 

"I feel like every other Canadian," Stirling told us. Now she'll have the proof.​

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Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.


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