Chris Selley: Children of Canadian expats battle ‘bureaucratic terrorism’ in quest for citizenship

Chris Selley: Children of Canadian expats battle ‘bureaucratic terrorism’ in quest for citizenship


One of Justin Trudeau’s more notable — and braver — sound bites concerns the nature of citizenship: “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he has averred on many occasions. He coined it in 2015, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives tabled and passed legislation allowing the government to strip Canadians convicted of terrorism offences of their citizenship, provided they hold citizenship of another country as well. (Canada is bound by treaty not to render people stateless.) The first baddie thus punished was Jordanian-born Zakaria Amara, ringleader of the Toronto 18 terror plot.

It was just weeks before the 2015 federal election. Unsurprisingly, the law was quite popular. But Trudeau stuck to his guns. “The (law) creates second-class citizens,” he argued. “Under a Liberal government there will be no two-tiered citizenship. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” Last year, the Liberals followed through. Amara got his citizenship back. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told a Senate committee examining the bill repealing the measure.

It’s a line that particularly rankles a (for now) small group of Canadians who have been locked in slow, Kafkaesque battle with Hussen’s ministry and its global bureaucracy. They are Canadian citizens, with deep, lifelong, unquestionable ties to Canada, but whose children are not automatically entitled to Canadian citizenship because both parent and child happened to be born abroad.

The longest and perhaps most bewildering case may be that of Patrick and Fiona Chandler, and their children Ryan and (especially) Rachel. This is an unambiguously Canadian family: Patrick’s father immigrated to Canada from Ireland roughly 50 years ago, Patrick tells me. Patrick’s mother was American, though her mother was born in Toronto and raised in Nova Scotia. At the time Rachel was born, in 2009, Patrick had lived only three-and-a-half of his 23 years anywhere other than in Canada — two of them as an infant. He had held no passport other than Canada’s.

Patrick Chandler, his baby daughter Rachel and his wife Fiona in 2007.

Family photo via Vancouver Sun

Fiona, Patrick’s wife, is Chinese. They met while Patrick was doing something a lot of Canadians do: teaching abroad in their 20s. It’s a sort of Canadian worldliness that liberal (and Liberal) Canadians tend to boast about. It’s what Patrick’s parents had been doing in Libya, where he was born, before they moved home to Mississauga, Ont., when he was two years old. And when Rachel was born, they logically assumed Patrick would automatically pass on his citizenship to her — just as Patrick’s father had passed it on to him.

Not so. A few months earlier, the Conservatives had passed legislation limiting the automatic transfer of citizenship to a single generation when children are born abroad. It was a reaction, in part, to the “citizens of convenience” foofaraw that surrounded the mass evacuation of Lebanese-Canadians during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. The government’s legislative solution: if you were not born in Canada, and if your children are also born abroad, they will not automatically become Canadian, no matter how compelling your links to Canada or lack of links to any other nation.

This is certainly a form of “two-tiered citizenship,” which Trudeau promised would not exist under his watch: One tier of citizens passes it on to their children under any circumstances; another does not under a fairly common circumstance. A study by the Asia Pacific Foundation estimated that 2.8 million Canadians lived abroad in 2006; if that grew in lockstep with Canada’s population, it would be 3.2 million today. Roughly 20 per cent of Canadians were born abroad. Their kids will not automatically be Canadian unless they are born on Canadian soil.

If she was born three months earlier, it would have been all good

“If she was born three months earlier, it would have been all good,” says Chandler. Had he known about the new law, he says, he and Fiona would simply have hopped on a plane to Canada and had the baby back home, then hopped on another plane back to China with their Canadian daughter. Not only are there two tiers of citizenship, then, but the tiers are nonsensical: anyone who’s born in Canada is automatically a citizen and can pass that citizenship down to their children, even if their parents leave immediately with the baby and never come back. The Chandler kids enjoy no such privilege.

Baby Rachel wasn’t just not-Canadian, either. Because China does not recognize children born out of wedlock as citizens, she was stateless — not entitled to health care, education or travel documents, essentially a non-person. (Their elder child, Ryan, has Chinese citizenship because Patrick and Fiona married before he was born.) And the same Conservative government that deferred to international treaties on statelessness with respect to convicted terrorists refused to help the Chandlers out with respect to their infant daughter, according to both Chandler and Don Chapman, an airline pilot who has fought tirelessly and effectively for various classes of people he dubbed “Lost Canadians.” The Chandlers’ application for a ministerial grant of citizenship for Rachel — something explicitly provided for in the Conservative legislation in cases of statelessness or other humanitarian grounds — was denied, they say. (Citing “confidentiality requirements,” a spokesperson for Hussen says his department “cannot comment on the specifics of … cases … without the consent of those involved.”)

It was a country to which Rachel Chandler had a much less direct link that partially remedied the situation.

“Someone from the Irish consulate in Beijing reached out to me and said, ‘You know, we’ve heard about this and we can help you out here’,” Chandler recalls. “‘We noticed that your daughter’s paternal grandfather was born in Ireland … so if Canada’s not going to step up to the plate and do the right thing then we’re going to.’”

One might think a Conservative government committed to strengthening the value of Canadian citizenship would be at least slightly embarrassed by that. One might think a Liberal government committed to different but no less high-minded citizenship ideals would be as well. Apparently not.

A decade later, Patrick Chandler has taken a job with the British Columbia government — “a career opportunity I could not afford to pass (up),” he says. His wife and kids are still in China, however, awaiting approval to come to Canada as sponsored immigrants.

Because of amendments made to the Citizenship Act just a few days before she was born, Rachel Chandler is now stateless.

Family photo via Vancouver Sun

Chandler applied in December 2017. “Now (it’s) the end of June and they still haven’t made a final decision — and it’s like, guys, this is ridiculous,” he fumes. “We have Justin Trudeau going all around the world saying ‘Canada believes in human rights, we believe that families should be together, … a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ … but we’ll separate (my) family for going on nine months now — could be up to a year. I have no time frame.”

After we spoke, a relieved Chandler emailed me to announce his children had finally been granted permanent residency status. But it was a hell of an ordeal. “It’s tough on me and it’s tough on the kids. They need a dad in their life,” he said before the good news. It could all be solved with the stroke of a pen.

So too could the case of Daniela Bramwell — another unambiguous Canadian. Her father was born in England and immigrated to Canada with his parents at the age of two; her mother’s family history in Canada has been traced as far back as New France in 1662. Her parents moved temporarily back to England in the 1980s for work; Daniela was born in 1983, was registered immediately as a Canadian citizen, and before her fifth birthday returned to Canada, where she was born and raised.

Like Patrick Chandler, Daniela Bramwell has never held another citizenship. Unlike Patrick’s daughter Rachel, Daniela’s daughter Emma is not stateless, but a citizen of Ecuador, where Bramwell met and married her husband Marco, an electrical engineer. They had planned to immigrate to Canada eventually and have kids, ideally once Marco’s experience left him suitably qualified for engineering jobs in Canada. In the meantime, Bramwell won a Vanier Scholarship to pursue a PhD in education at the University of Toronto, with fieldwork to be conducted in Ecuador on “differences in the hidden curriculum for high and low income high school students.” The plan was she would split her time between Toronto and Quito.

Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, speaks during a press conference in Halifax on Monday, July 9, 2018.

Michael Tutton/Canadian Press

When she got pregnant in Ecuador, they debated various options including having the baby in Canada. But the visa process for Marco would have been onerous, and he couldn’t get enough time off work for them to be together abroad for Emma’s birth abroad. “We could not face the idea of him not being there for the birth of our first child and me being alone,” says Daniela, reasonably enough.

Bramwell, unlike Chandler, was aware of the new second-generation-born-abroad rule. But she says the Canadian embassy in Quito told her there would be no issue, and even directed her to online instructions for obtaining her daughter’s citizenship certificate. (It is a common refrain among people in these situations that citizenship and immigration bureaucrats are alarmingly ignorant both of citizenship laws and of their own ignorance.)

Alas, there was very much an issue: For the same reason as Rachel Chandler, Bramwell says, Emma wasn’t entitled to Canadian citizenship. And Daniela had a hell of a time even getting her into Canada as a “visitor.” In one email she shared with me, the Canadian embassy in Quito passed on bad news from Passport Canada: Emma had been refused a temporary passport because both she and her mother had been born abroad. In another, the same embassy refused Emma a visitor’s visa to Canada because Daniela had applied for her citizenship and “a visitor visa cannot be issued to a Canadian citizen.” The embassy then invited Daniela to email their consular section and apply for Emma’s passport.

I have my PhD here, I have my family here. You know, this is my country

Bramwell says she didn’t applied for a ministerial grant of citizenship for Emma because she would be a “second-class citizen”: like her mother, she wouldn’t be able to pass on citizenship to any of her children if she committed the heresy of having children abroad. “And who knows what else?” Bramwell muses. “Maybe later on they decide it wasn’t a good idea, and take her citizenship away.”

When I spoke to Daniela, she Marco and Emma were together in Toronto. Father and daughter, with visitor’s visas, both had to pass medical examinations. “Luckily for kids that age they don’t draw blood and do all these other tests,” Daniela says of her daughter. “(But) what if she had not passed? For every other Canadian parent out there … if their baby has a health problem, is their baby denied care and then kicked out of the country?” Emma then had OHIP coverage thanks to a loophole discovered by a helpful provincial bureaucrat Daniela dealt with. But Daniela struggled against tears describing the uncertainty and precarity of the situation and the thought of being forced back to Ecuador to keep their family together.

“I have my PhD here, I have my family here. You know, this is my country,” she says. “Wondering what they’re going to do next — I don’t know. Complete helplessness.”

(After we spoke, Bramwell, emailed with a series of good-news updates — the last of which was that late last month Emma and Marco had finally been granted permanent residency. This immediately solves the health insurance issue and finally puts them on track for citizenship. Marco will have to wait five years before applying for citizenship, says Bramwell, but Emma might have it within a year. “I still feel like there’s a quite a road ahead… but with (permanent residency Emma) has rights!” she wrote “I cannot explain my relief.”)

The Bramwell family.

Local input

I reached Victoria Chiang in Japan, where she is spending part of the summer with her husband and children — because they have to leave the country periodically in order to renew their children’s visitor visas to Canada. In the past they’ve driven eight hours from Edmonton to Montana, and then straight back again, she says, but at least in Japan they can visit family.

Chiang was born in Hong Kong, and came to Canada in 1980 with her mother to live with her naturalized Canadian citizen father — who was born in Vietnam, and who hasn’t been a part of the family for many years — when she was just one year old. She grew up in Edmonton. But, like Chandler, she travelled abroad to teach English and found a partner — in her case, in Japan. She says she learned about the second-generation-born-abroad restrictions while extremely pregnant in 2009, and sought advice from the Canadian government, but never heard anything back. And it was too late, medically speaking, for her to beetle back to Canadian soil to ensure her first born would be a citizen.

Chiang, unlike Bramwell, is betting on Hussen granting her children Akari, nine, and Arisa, seven, citizenship outright. (Hussen has granted 37 people citizenship since his election in 2015, according to ministry figures — though 26 of those were in Year One.) She bristles at the notion of trying to apply for their citizenship or sponsor them when common sense (if not the law) dictates they should already have it. She has asked the ministry for such dispensation. Still she waits.

Chapman’s tireless advocacy on Parliament Hill has succeeded in repatriating thousands of unaccountably “Lost Canadians” — war brides and war babies, home children, people whose parents took on American citizenship and thus forfeited their children’s Canadian citizenship under previous laws, people who would have been entitled to citizenship had their mothers been Canadian instead of their fathers, people who failed to apply to retain citizenship by deadlines of which they were totally unaware. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have spent untold fortunes fighting these people in court.

Chiang, as a teen with family, at the West Edmonton Mall.

Courtesy Victoria Chiang

For such an ostensibly open country, the extent of the churlishness is remarkable. No less a Canadian than Roméo Dallaire, already a Captain in the Army, had to go before a citizenship judge in the 1970s to prove his entitlement to a passport. He was born in the Netherlands in 1946 to a Canadian soldier father and Dutch nurse. In the 2000s, Dallaire threw his support behind Chapman’s efforts, likening the forces arrayed against the Lost Canadians to “bureaucratic terrorism.”

There are many other situations like these, and it’s an objectively bizarre situation. Trudeau’s Liberals have even promised to extend voting rights to Canadians living abroad for more than five years, thus remedying an obvious inconsistency in the progressive internationalist vision of Canada. Yet they somehow can’t find their way to granting obviously Canadian children of obviously Canadian parents into the most basic right of citizenship.

I requested an interview with Hussen, and as a fallback asked his spokesperson to respond to various questions about this situation. An interview would be “difficult,” the spokesperson responded, but he assured me he was working on the questions.

Many days after deadline, a different spokesperson responded: “IRCC continues to work with these individuals on a case-by-case basis through existing channels, including acquiring permanent resident status through regular immigration processes,” she wrote in an email. “We continue to engage with stakeholders to explore additional ways to address this issue.”

Again: all this could all be resolved with the simple stroke of a pen.

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