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In Depth

Lost Canadians

Sins of the father

Last Updated March 2007

Chapman Don Chapman is one of the original lost Canadians who has been fighting to regain his citizenship. He lost it when his father moved to the U.S. for work. (Courtesy lostcanadian.com)

They are the original Lost Canadians, known to those in the citizenship game as the "Chattel Children", or alternatively as the "Chapman group", courtesy of Don Chapman, of Gibsons, B.C.

Unbeknownst to him or his family, Chapman lost his Canadian citizenship as a young boy, and has been fighting for more than three decades to get it back.

Under the 1947 Citizenship Act, anyone whose father took out citizenship in another country automatically lost his or her citizenship as well. That's what happened to Chapman when his father went south to work in the U.S. As Chapman was to learn, under the law of the day, both wives and children were considered the 'chattel' of the father. They had no rights to Canadian citizenship on their own. If the father took out citizenship in another country, the children automatically lost their citizenship, even if they weren't living with the father at the time.

And over the years, the law has resulted in some pretty peculiar applications.

Magali Castro Gyr is one such case. Her family has been in Canada for 10 generations. Her mother never took out citizenship in any other country; nor did any of the children in the family.

But when Castro Gyr was a child, her father was required to take out U.S. citizenship for his work. Castro Gyr says no one thought anything of it, until she applied for citizenship certificates for her children. That's when the federal government told her that she had lost the legal right to be a Canadian.

The added problem here was that the Kelowna, B.C., teacher did not have citizenship anywhere else and, as a result, became effectively stateless.

Eventually, Castro Gyr was forced to move to Switzerland where she could gain legal status because her husband is Swiss. She has since regained her citizenship by suing the federal government.

Breakups

Another Chapman group alumni who made headlines in Toronto was Mike Leetch. He was born to Canadian parents, but his father left the family when he was a child.

Shortly before his parents' divorce became final, his father took out citizenship in the U.S., and Leetch lost his citizenship as well, even though he had not seen his father for many years.

As a result, he was unable to bring his wife into the country. But when his story was told in the national media, he was given a grant of citizenship.

Still, the experience left Leetch incredulous.

"It's just like, they have no common sense at all," he told CBC. "I mean, this law is ancient. Nobody's even heard of it. You're just living your life, and all of a sudden some bureaucrat says, 'hey, you're not Canadian.' Then your whole life falls apart, and through no fault of your own. I mean, it's not like I ever gave up my citizenship!"

Demographer Barry Edmonston says the vast majority of the so-called Chapman group lives abroad. He calculates there are as many as 85,000 in the United States at the moment, plus probably an equal number of their children.

Based on studies of migration patterns, Edmonston says only a few thousand would likely want to return to Canada. But he and others estimate there are between 10,000 and 20,000 "Canadians" living in Canada who are caught by this dilemma. Many of them also have children who would be affected.

The government claims the number is much smaller, and a parliamentary committee is holding hearings to try to sort this out

Due to lobbying by Chapman, Parliament did pass a law in 2005 that makes it easier for people like him to re-gain their citizenship. (A new Citizenship Act in 1977 also did away with the old clause about fathers so anyone born after that date is not affected.) However, the 2005 amendments do not apply to the children of those who were caught by the old rules, something that leaves Chapman in a terrible position.

"They're basically saying, I can come back to Canada, but I have to leave my children behind," Chapman says. "How cruel is that? I love Canada, but if it comes to a choice between my country and my children, I'll choose my children."

Chapman is still waiting for his citizenship to be reaffirmed.

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