Couple hopes adopted daughter's citizenship ordeal will trigger policy change

More than a year after Derek and Emilie Muth left Calgary to adopt their daughter in Nigeria, they're finally returning home. They say their ordeal contains lessons for improving the citizenship process for those in urgent need.

More than a year after adoption finalized, family returns home

A Calgary family is finally returning home

CBC News Calgary

3 months ago
When they left for Nigeria to pick up their adopted daughter, they didn't expect an ordeal that left them in limbo for more than a year. 1:22

More than a year after Derek and Emilie Muth left Calgary to adopt their daughter Zoe in Nigeria, they're finally returning home. 

But the couple says their ordeal contains lessons for the federal government on how it could improve its citizenship process for those in urgent need.

"We feel an obligation to take ownership over what we've seen with systemic prejudices and systemic injustices … Because we're citizens of Canada who've gone through immigration, which is pretty rare, we feel an obligation to effect change somehow," Derek Muth said. 

"This whole story is already not private because we were forced to go to the media. So we might as well use it the best we can … and hopefully something policy-wise changes."

The Muths' adoption of their two-and-a-half year-old daughter was finalized in October 2019, but her citizenship was delayed when Canadian immigration staff were repatriated, because of the pandemic, from the only government office in West Africa that could finish processing their paperwork. 

Zoe has sickle cell anemia, and had contracted a life-threatening infection while in hospital in Nigeria, leading to sepsis and severe anemia requiring a blood transfusion.

If this is the treatment of Canadian citizens, then I can't imagine what refugees go through.— Derek and Emilie Muth

She and the Muths relocated to Barbados — one of the few countries that allows Canadian and Nigerian visitors to stay for months without visas — so they could receive better medical care. 

When the pandemic hit, all three were stranded in the Caribbean.

There, the family say they went months with government officials seemingly not even opening their documents, according to an access-to-information request filed by their lawyer, and, until CBC News reached out, no reply from the immigration minister to their urgent requests for repatriation.

But they said after news stories were published in September, there was suddenly a flurry of activity.

Derek and Emilie Muth arrived in Calgary on Monday with their newly adopted daughter Zoe, after more than a year waiting for Zoe's Canadian citizenship to be finalized. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Earlier this month, Zoe's citizenship application was finally approved. The Muths say they were told by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that's because an official was flown from Canada to Ghana to review their electronic file, which could have been viewed remotely. The official then interviewed the family over the phone.

"They ended up doing the interview over the phone, which is a massive head-scratcher, because back in March when … we were begging for repatriation, the answer from [IRCC] was that an interview might be required and [the Ghana office was] not doing interviews … and fast-forward eight months later and they do the whole thing over the phone anyways," Derek said.

"They had all the digital copies of our application, all the files."

Emilie says, during that interview, the officer also accused the couple of breaking a Nigerian adoption law, based on the wait period before adoption finalization.

But the law in question had been changed years ago and the couple was in compliance — something they knew but the Canadian officer seemingly did not.

The official requested more paperwork via the family's lawyer and the matter was cleared up in a week or two. 

"Afterwards, I sent [IRCC and the Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino] a letter saying 'Your officer is making life-changing decisions for our family based on a misunderstanding of the law.' So it's just, it was really concerning and troubling for us," Emilie said.

Their 13-page letter sent to the minister recommends changes they say the government should make to prevent other families from facing a similar situation. The recommendations focus on how to streamline the process for those in urgent need. 

"Without intervention from your office, ill treatment and undue hardship will continue for families who are opening their homes, hearts and finances to provide a Canadian future for a child in need. After going through this, I'm pondering — if this is the treatment of Canadian citizens, then I can't imagine what refugees go through," the letter reads.

Emilie embraces Zoe at the Calgary airport on Monday. The family is sharing their international adoption story in the hopes it can affect policy change to make it easier for other families. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

An IRCC spokesperson confirmed that Zoe's citizenship was approved after an officer went to the Ghana office to review their application, but would not provide more details. 

The IRCC also said, without addressing the Muths' specific complaints, that sometimes additional steps in the citizenship process are required to ensure adoptions meet the requirements of international conventions, and that time frames can vary even from case to case within a country.

"While IRCC officers have encountered some challenges in processing applications during the pandemic, officers continue to assess applications for adoption to ensure the adoption meets the requirements of the Citizenship Act, before recognizing a child as a presumptive Canadian," the IRCC said in a statement.

MP Raquel Dancho, the Opposition critic for immigration, spoke with the Muths and on Wednesday asked the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration if IRCC would be doing a comprehensive review.

"International adoptions are a complicated business because so much depends on the host country," deputy immigration minister Catrina Tapley responded — without addressing that the delays were on the Canadian side. 

Dancho says the government has struggled to effectively manage immigration during the pandemic. 

Derek and Emilie adopted Zoe in Nigeria in October 2019. (Submitted by the Muth family)

"The Muth family's heartbreaking story is a clear indication that Canada's immigration system is failing to treat newcomers with dignity, compassion or respect," she said in a statement.

The Muths arrived in Calgary on Monday afternoon.

Emilie says, despite the problems they faced, she doesn't want to discourage others from adoption.

"It's hard, but it's worth it," she said. "The meaningful things in life are rarely easy."

Now, they say their focus is on helping Zoe adjust to life in Calgary and, once it's safe, catching up with their loved ones.

"We would love to come back and have everybody at the airport and give big hugs to grandma and have a nice, really emotional time … but I mean, we've been isolated for 13 months, so it's still going to be way better [to be back,]" Emilie said.