Couple in Nova Scotia hopes for last-minute reprieve from 'devastating' deportation

An American couple in their early 70s that an immigration appeal board said "almost anyone" would want as neighbours is under a deportation order to leave the country.

Americans David and Kathryn Wright say they belong in Voglers Cove, where they have lived for 5 years

Shown in this 2005 photo, Kathryn and David Wright say having to leave Voglers Cove, N.S., would be devastating. (Submitted by Kathryn A. Wright)

A tiny community of about 200 people on Nova Scotia's south shore is rallying behind a husband and wife from the U.S. who are under a deportation order to leave Canada. 

David and Kathryn Wright say they're heartbroken at the thought of leaving Voglers Cove, a picturesque hamlet on the Medway River that they've called home for five years.

"It's devastating," said Kathryn Wright. "We love Voglers Cove. We've always wanted to be here and the idea of having to leave is just mind-boggling.

"We're in our 70s. We have no place to go. Everything we own is here."

Loved by community

In late December, the couple lost their appeal of a removal order before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Despite ruling against the Wrights, the board noted in its decision that "almost anyone" would want the pair as neighbours. 

The couple are active members of the community in Voglers Cove, tucked away between Liverpool and Lunenburg. Kathryn Wright helped set up a library at the local community hall and organizes book readings, while her husband volunteers as a radio operator with the local fire department and helps out with their breakfast fundraisers.

"They're extremely community-minded, which is why the whole community has rallied behind them. In a community as small as 200, every person counts," said Eric Hustvedt, the municipal councillor for Voglers Cove and some other nearby communities.

A meeting in support of the Wrights at the Voglers Cove Community Hall in July 2016 drew a large crowd. (Submitted by Kathryn A. Wright)

Deportation order issued

He pointed to the couple's most recent immigration appeal hearing, which was held in Halifax in September. 

Around 50 people made the 128-kilometre trek from Voglers Cove to support the couple. There were so many supporters that they had to take turns being shuffled in and out of the room to watch the proceedings.

The couple's lawyer, Lee Cohen, said it's unusual for people outside of family members to attend such hearings, let alone dozens of community members.

The board made its ruling on Dec. 22, 2016, giving the Wrights 30 days to voluntarily leave the country. After 30 days, the removal order turned into a deportation order.

The ruling is the latest roadblock in the couple's efforts to build a life in Canada.

Their story began in 1972 when the couple first moved to Nova Scotia from Massachusetts to follow David Wright's dream of being a lobster fisherman and the couple's quest to live in a safe and welcoming place. That plan didn't work out and five years later, the couple moved back to the U.S., but always intended on coming back to Canada.

'Live happily ever after'

While the couple made occasional visits to Canada, they decided to return permanently in January 2012 and were armed with landed immigrant status cards they received in the 1970s. That immigration classification is known as a permanent resident today.

"They figured that all they had to do was drive into Canada, report at the port of entry and make their way to Nova Scotia and live happily live after," said Cohen, who has represented the couple since 2012.

To maintain one's permanent residency, a person must spend at least 730 days total — or two years, off and on — in Canada over a five-year period. But the Wrights fell far short of that requirement.

David Wright had been in the country for only about 200 days total, while his wife had spent about 140 days in Canada. 

Despite these issues, the border agent let them into the country, said Cohen, as they were still permanent residents, a judge hadn't ruled they weren't and they hadn't voluntarily given up their permanent residency.

"The border official did technically have to let them in if they insisted on coming in," said Cohen.

Appeal history

The border agent then issued a removal order, which the Wrights appealed before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. The matter was heard on Feb. 26, 2014.

A panel of the board's immigration appeal division later ruled the removal order be set aside and that the Wrights hadn't lost their permanent residency status. The panel said there were sufficient humanitarian and compassionate grounds for them to stay that outruled their non-compliance of residency obligations.

The federal government then appealed the case in Federal Court, which was heard on Dec. 9, 2014, and it later overturned the previous decision.

This triggered a requirement that the matter be heard again by the immigration appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. The hearing was held on Sept. 21, 2016, and while it later upheld the Federal Court ruling, the person who oversaw the hearing had kind words for the Wrights.

"The tribunal also wishes to reiterate that this was a very difficult decision as these are quality individuals. If the criteria would have been would you want these people as your neighbours, objectively almost anyone would probably wish so," said Haig Basmajian in his decision.

Case argued on humanitarian grounds

Appeals can be argued based on the law or on equity (humanitarian reasons), or both. Cohen has argued the case solely on humanitarian grounds in all three instances. His clients don't dispute the removal order isn't legally valid.

Lawyer Lee Cohen says the Wrights are being put through a lot of needless stress, fear and uncertainty by immigration officials. (CBC)

Rather, the Wrights see Voglers Cove as their home and don't think they'd be able to afford to live in the U.S. given housing and health-care costs.

The couple said they live on a combined annual income of $20,000 plus social security benefits in Voglers Cove, where a oceanfront home can be bought for less than $150,000.

"There's no place where we have a community of people or family in one spot in the United States ... We're living really on the edge of what we can afford here and we're settled here," said Wright.

"It works here. I don't know it would work anywhere else financially."

Fear of living in Trump's America

The Wrights said they're also leery of the political climate in the U.S., which is why they left in the first place in 1972.

Back then, they were concerned about the right-wing turn of the country under the Nixon administration and social problems such as riots and assassinations.

"It's much worse than it was back then," said Wright.

"Nixon, at least, was semi-rational. The orange one [President Donald Trump] isn't," added David Wright.

Now that the deportation order is in effect, the Wrights are having a so-called pre-removal risk assessment done. With their appeal hopes exhausted, the Wrights hope the assessment finds there's a reason why deporting them would be unsafe or pose a threat to their liberty.

The federal immigration minister could intervene in their favour.

'We really belong here'

Both the Wrights and Cohen can't understand why, with Nova Scotia's aging population and shrinking rural communities, authorities are trying to have them removed from the country.

"We really belong here," said Kathryn Wright.

"Nova Scotia needs us, as well as lot of other people, to live in rural Nova Scotia."

With files from Maritime Noon