A video glitch put one Manitoba man in immigration limbo, but he's a citizen now after going public
Brian Sumner attended citizenship ceremony in 2022, but was marked as a no-show when judge couldn't see him
A Manitoba man stuck in immigration limbo because of a technical snafu during a virtual ceremony became a Canadian citizen last week after deciding to go public with his year-long saga.
Brian Sumner, 66, was born in England and has lived in Canada since 2006. Instead of renewing his permanent residency for the third time, he decided in 2021 to apply to become a Canadian citizen.
Little did he know that decision would leave him with no citizenship papers or permanent residency card, and unable to leave the country as he waited for documentation that never arrived.
"I have really nowhere to go. They don't answer phone calls. They don't answer your messages. They don't answer the forms that they put online for you to fill," Sumner said of his experience with the federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Department.
Citizenship ceremony glitch
His troubles began when he attended a virtual ceremony on March 29, 2022. He was instructed to cut up his permanent residency card — as is the standard procedure — and take an oath of citizenship in front of a judge.
He logged on and saw the judge and the other people taking part in the ceremony when suddenly the screen went black. He could still listen to the ceremony, so he waited and took the oath along with everyone else.
The screen came back on, he saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulating everyone and then the ceremony ended.
Soon after an email came in, congratulating him on becoming a Canadian citizen.
- Do you have a tip for the investigation unit? Email us at email@example.com or call us at 204-788-3744.
Sumner says he waited for more information to come, including his citizenship certificate number that would allow him to apply for a new passport, but nothing arrived.
"And we waited and waited and waited," Sumner said. "So a couple of weeks later I tried phoning them.… It was horrendous."
Each call he made to the immigration department involved six minutes of choosing various options before an automated message told him no one was available and to try again later.
Then he noticed his status on the online portal went from pending to closed.
From that moment about a month after the ceremony, he estimated he called two or three times a week and only got through twice— and they weren't able to give him any information.
To add to the confusion, he got a certificate from his area MP, Ted Falk, congratulating him on becoming a citizen. He called Falk's assistant, hoping to learn the status of his file, and the department told Falk's assistant Sumner's citizenship certificate had been shredded.
"Apparently, because the judge hadn't seen me, it was null and void … but I couldn't find out any of that information," Sumner said.
- Ongoing immigration delays leave nearly a million waiting to become citizens and permanent residents
This limbo continued until February of this year, leaving Sumner unable to travel because he had torn up his permanent residency card, and unable to collect the Old Age Security he was entitled to when he turned 65.
"Respond to a phone call. You're a big organization," he said.
"To me it is being able to travel, being able to collect the money, to me [it] is having the freedom to vote."
Department called during interview
After months of silence and an email from CBC to the department, Sumner got a call from them in the midst of an interview with CBC, asking if he would be available to attend a citizenship ceremony the next week.
"Why does it take getting the media involved to get action done on something?" he asked.
WATCH | Brian Sumner gets call from immigration during CBC News interview:
The next day, Sumner got another call from the deputy director of the department in Manitoba, apologizing for the error and offering to do an private virtual ceremony in the next 30 minutes.
On that day, Feb. 10, Sumner officially became a Canadian citizen.
"Absolutely stunned," he said after becoming a Canadian citizen, nearly a year after his first ceremony.
"I am really, really happy. It is a weight lifted off my mind."
Lawyers say department difficult to reach
Immigration lawyers in Winnipeg say the issues Sumner faced are commonplace when dealing with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
"I'm no longer shocked and surprised by that kind of government delay, the frustrations individuals have when trying to just have basic communications with the department," said Reis Pagtakhan, an immigration lawyer and partner at MLT Aikins.
"That seems to be more often a regular occurrence than it is an exception."
Pagtakhan said he often sends multiple emails to the department, asking questions about a file, only to never hear back from them.
"The government of Canada either doesn't get back to you, it gets back to you in weeks or months or gets back to you with refusing your application," Pagtakhan said.
"Well, if you answered my question, I could fix that."
He said Manitobans would never accept a one-year wait for a new driver's licence over a technical error.
"So why is that acceptable in an immigration process?" he asked.
That point was echoed by Winnipeg immigration lawyer Carolina Fridman.
"It's unbelievable," Fridman said upon hearing Sumner's story. "There has got to be another way to contact them."
She said more often than not, going to the media can get faster results than actually trying to reach someone at Immigration, as the department "is really not easy to navigate."
System recorded Sumner as 'no-show'
A spokesperson for the department told CBC News because Sumner lost connection during the ceremony, the judge did not see him take his oath of citizenship.
He was recorded as a "no-show" in the department's system.
However, that same system also recorded he had taken the oath and his filed was closed, the spokesperson told CBC News.
His citizenship certificate was created and then destroyed. It took another five months before the administrative error was realized.
The spokesperson called Sumner's situation a "regrettable error" and apologized for what happened.
On Sept. 2, 2022, his citizenship application was regranted and he was placed in the "ceremony-ready queue," the spokesperson said.
It's unclear why there was no communication between the Immigration Department and Sumner during this period.
Pagtakhan said this all could have been wrapped up sooner if the government had realized its mistake earlier and communicated it to Sumner.
"The problem is the government takes months and months and months to come to that solution," he said.
"If the government provided the solution to that individual to get their citizenship a week after they messed it up, then this would not be something we'd be talking about."