As many 'Lost Canadians' gain citizenship, others are left in limbo

Changes to federal rules that go into effect Friday to reinstate the citizenship of so-called Lost Canadians — residents who lost or never had citizenship — will create a whole new category of people deprived of such rights, experts say.

Children born abroad to Canadian parents or adopted abroad may lose rights

In a peppy YouTube video posted by the federal Citizenship and Immigration Ministry, a man awakes on April 17, 2009, to a once-austere bedroom now adorned in Canadian paraphernalia.
When the U.S. tightened border security, it triggered a surge in passport applications and revealed that a number of Canadian residents didn't have citizenship. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press) )

Titled Waking up Canadian, it’s aimed at so-called "Lost Canadians" — people who, as of Friday, are finally citizens of the country they always thought they belonged to.

The good news comes thanks to an amendment to the Citizenship Act that will help thousands of disenfranchised residents who were stripped of their citizenship or were told they weren't eligible. Among them are war brides who married Canadian soldiers after 1947 and children of Canadians born abroad who lost citizenship after not registering with the government.

For Dean Echenberg, who spent years fighting for the Canadian citizenship he lost when his father moved to the U.S. and became an American citizen, that video depiction is reality.

"I'm a Canadian," Echenberg told CBC News. "Always was, and now the government recognizes it."

When Echenberg's father died, the family moved back to Canada. Echenberg only found out about his rescinded nationality when he applied for a Canadian passport while studying at a U.S. medical school. "I was informed that I had been stripped of my Canadian citizenship. I was floored."

His nationality was stripped under an old law that didn't allow dual citizenship. That was revised in 1977, but it wasn't retroactive.

'Fall between the cracks'

But even though provisions in the legislation, what was known as Bill C-37, are a cause of celebration for some, others won't benefit, and experts say the amendment may create another generation of lost Canadians.


 Facts in brief

  • Canada's first citizenship act came into effect on Jan. 1, 1947. Residents were considered British subjects until then.
  • Before the citizenship act was revamped in 1977, dual citizenship was not allowed.
  • When children were born out of wedlock before 1977, Canadian citizenship was passed from mother to child.
  • Under the new changes, citizenship will be restored retroactively to the date the person lost it or the date he or she was born.
  • It limits citizenship by descent to one generation born outside Canada. For example, the child of a foreign-born Canadian does not receive citizenship if the child is born abroad. 
  • Exceptions to citizenship by descent are made for people working abroad for the Armed Forces or the federal or provincial governments. 
 (Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

"There's a whole new group of people who are going to fall between the cracks as a result of these measures, in addition to some of the people who fell into the former category of lost Canadians," said Sharryn Aiken, a law professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Aiken said the law prevents citizenship from being passed beyond first-generation Canadians in some cases. For example, a person born abroad to — or adopted from a foreign country by — Canadian parents can't pass their citizenship on to their children if their child is born outside Canada.

It's a change that has Laura Cameron of Kingston worrying about the future of her 10-year-old son, Arden. He was born in Cambridge, England, while Cameron was studying at the city's university.

"What if [he] falls in love abroad?" she asked. "Do they move to the Paris airport and become members of the stateless class who live in airports? Good Lord, it's just ludicrous."

The changes for second-generation Canadians are "regressive, draconian and completely out of step with the times," Cameron said.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told CBC News the new rule was made to prevent people who permanently live outside the country and never pay taxes from passing on citizenship to their children.

"We think citizenship is so important. It is such an important Canadian value and privilege that we want to limit it to those people who have some kind of enduring presence or commitment to Canada," said Kenney.

Exceptions are made for children of parents working abroad with the Canadian Armed Forces, as federal public servants or in the service of a province.

But with an estimated 2.7 million Canadians living abroad, Aiken said, the Canadian government needs to rethink its definition of citizenship in a world where people increasingly identify with multiple backgrounds.

"I think it's retrograde to suggest individuals can only have one loyalty and one country," Aiken said.

Government estimates questioned

The government expects the new law will resolve more than 95 per cent of the cases of Lost Canadians, a total estimated to be a few thousand.  Back in 2007, a CBC investigation found that as many as 200,000 people could be affected by various outdated provisions.

In the end, the amendments have failed to help several categories of Lost Canadians, including a group of Mennonites who were apparently issued citizenship cards in error and some so-called war babies.

Jacqueline Scott was born in England in 1945 to a Canadian serviceman and a British mother, who later married and lived in Canada. Under the new legislation, war babies born out of wedlock only have a right to citizenship if they were born after 1947 — the year Canada first adopted its own citizenship law.

"My father fought for Canada. Why should they deny his daughter what really should be hers?" Scott said.

The Immigration Ministry sent her a letter dated Feb. 23, 2009, stating that the law when Scott was born didn't permit her to get British subject status through her father because she was born out of wedlock (at the time, persons born in Canada were British subjects). So when Canadian citizenship was created two years later, her father obtained it but she was ineligible.

"They consider me to be, in this day and age, a bastard. It's a horrible expression, but that’s how they still deem me. And I've been denied based on that," Scott said.

The problem of Lost Canadians was highlighted in a series of reports by CBC News in 2007 about how thousands of people were at risk of losing their citizenship due to outdated provisions in existing and former citizenship laws.

The issue gained importance after the United States started tightening border security in 2002, triggering a rise in Canadians applying for passports.

In 2006, Joe Taylor, the son of a Canadian serviceman and war bride who had been stripped of his nationality, fought and won for his right to citizenship. Though that ruling was overturned, the government later offered him citizenship.

Aiken said she expects the government could face other such court challenges as the changes to the Citizenship Act become more public.

The federal government said it will continue to look at cases on an individual basis.

With files from Amber Hildebrandt and David McKie