A group of “Lost Canadians” who say their country has wrongfully denied them their citizenship is just days away from taking Ottawa to court over the issue – a fight the government predicted at one point could cost the country “tens of billions” of dollars in legislative fallout.
That estimate doesn’t include any damages the group might claim.
The court petition, the first of which is expected to be filed in Vancouver, will take the form of a request for a judicial review, and will charge the government with clinging to a set of arcane and complex rules that the group will argue have already been overturned in earlier court cases – and that Ottawa has simply refused to recognize.
Their arguments also centre on age and gender discrimination, both outlawed in Canada’s Charter of Rights.
In part, the group will argue that a woman must be as free to pass the right of citizenship to a child as a man is, and that the year in which one is born can’t be the basis of withholding citizenship.
It promises to be a grim legal battle.
Cost aside, in order to defend itself, Ottawa will be forced into a series of painful and offensive arguments, says Don Chapman, the group’s spokesman.
Among those arguments?
That one man registered as a status Indian under Canada’s Indian Act isn’t really a Canadian.
Or that people born before in Canada before 1947 aren’t really Canadian either – which, Chapman notes dryly, should come as a surprise to someone like Raymond Burr, the actor born in New Westminister, B.C., who rose to such international fame that in 2008, Canada Post featured him on one of the stamps in its “Canadians in Hollywood” series, and in 2009, he received a Canadian Legends Award and a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
As the first of the cases is filed in court this month, irony will hang heavy in the air, says Chapman, a Lost Canadian who won his own battle to have his citizenship recognized and in the process became a spokesman for the rest.
As Remembrance Day poppies sprout on lapels across the country and Stephen Harper’s government pushes to boost the role of the military in Canada’s history and consciousness, the first Lost Canadian expected to file suit is retired naval officer Peter Bramah, Chapman says.
Bramah, a Calgary resident in failing health, came to Canada as the child of an English war bride and a Canadian father, Chapman says.
Bramah joined the Canadian navy as a young man, travelled the world serving in the Canadian military and retired as a chief petty officer.
But Bramah is not a Canadian citizen, he learned eight years ago.
Bramah’s problem centres on the fact that he was born out of wedlock to a Sussex woman who went on to have a second child, a daughter, with the Canadian soldier who later married her. Their dad, a sergeant in the Royal Canadian artillery, moved the children to Canada and adopted Bramah, Chapman says.
It isn’t a coincidence that his case will be the first pushed forward.
“It’s apropos for Remembrance Day,” Chapman says. “Here we have a real live Canadian veteran being told he’s not one of us. He voted, paid taxes and served his country.
“And so did his dad.”
Marion Vermeersch, Bramah’s sister, has also been denied citizenship. She has pressed their case loudly, but unsuccessfully.
One of her arguments was made to a parliamentary committee that met several years ago to consider changes to citizenship laws.
After her appearance, Vermeersch was invited to apply for an individual ministerial grant of citizenship, but the serving minister moved on to a new portfolio, and she received no response.
Now a resident of Simcoe, Ont., Vermeersch says she and her young brother arrived in Canada aboard the Queen Mary in 1946 – and were assured by then-prime minister Mackenzie King that they were now Canadian citizens.
She still has a pamphlet and card that her mother was given, explaining where she would vote and that the family would be citizens, she notes.
Vermeersch has not set foot outside Canada since the day she arrived. She was issued a social insurance number, worked for 50 years before retiring, served on a jury and paid her taxes.
The siblings only discovered they were not considered Canadians in 2003 when Bramah applied for a passport. They were given the option of applying for landed resident status instead.
Vermeersch says she got her “permanent” status card in 2005, but the five-year card expired last year and when she attempted to renew it, she was told her paperwork from 1946 is unacceptable.
The pair remain caught in a technical limbo that they intend to remedy through their lawsuit, Chapman says.
That’s because they were born in Britain, out of wedlock and before 1947. Their Canadian dad was refused permission to marry before the end of the war, and married only after he was wounded and returned to Britain.
Rules regarding out-of-wedlock births applied to them initially, Chapman says.
Subsequent legislation aimed at legitimizing the children of war brides should have resolved their situation.
Only it didn’t, according to the government.
Joe Taylor, one of the “war bride” children who were bypassed, filed for a judicial review. And he won, in some measure. A federal court ruled that Taylor was indeed a Canadian citizen. The government then appealed to federal appeals court, where they declared that Taylor had been a citizen, but that he had lost his citizenship on his twenty-fourth birthday because he hadn't been living in Canada. Taylor then got a 5.4 citizenship grant, a "grant of citizenship", which restored his citizenship. Today, the age twenty-four requirement is no longer applicable.
The cost, as then-citizenship minister Monte Solberg told the House of Commons, could run into “tens of billions of dollars,” if the government was forced to correct the law retroactively, given the implication for “hundreds of statutes” and “dozens of departments”.
For Bramah and Vermeersch, the idea of attaching a cost to their citizenship doesn’t wash.
Taylor was later given citizenship via a ministerial grant. Bramah and Vermeersch weren’t.
They will be arguing that the issue of the status of children of war brides has been settled in court already, and that something has gone very wrong since then.
A long lineup
Bramah’s case is just the first in what will be a long line of lawsuits, Chapman says.
The circumstances at issue vary -- everyone from those born out of wedlock to women who married non-Canadians prior to 1947.
But many of the practical reasons behind them are common: fears about medical care, pensions and identities that they say rest on being Canadian.
In 2009, after years of lobbying, Chapman and his group pushed Bill C-37 into place, retroactively granting citizenship to those who lost their status after Jan. 1, 1947. But for those whose cases predated that, their status remains unresolved.
Somewhere just behind Bramah in the legal lineup is Jackie Scott, a Vancouver woman also born in England, in 1945, to a Canadian serviceman and his British war bride.
Scott and her mother came to in January of 1948, just months before the government stopped sponsoring travel for war brides and children of servicemen. Her parents married in May of that year.
“My ‘crime’ is that I was born out of wedlock,” Scott says. “I was never told of the circumstances of my birth and I only found out many years later. For my parents’ generation, it was a stigma to have a child or be born out of wedlock and it was never a topic of discussion. It was something that was kept secret.
“Because of the circumstances of my birth, [Citizensip and Immigration Canada] is discriminating against me based on gender, labelling me ‘illegitimate’ even in today’s society, contrary to Federal Court orders issued in cases that have been appealed and won because of this type of discrimination,” she says.
Scott’s story takes a slightly different turn than Bramah’s, though.
At 22 years old, she joined her husband in the U.S., where he had moved for a job in California. Her husband got a visa; Scott remained a resident alien until 2005, when she had to take out American citizenship.
She thought she retained the Canadian citizenship that she assumed she had, but found out in 2004 that she had none, having been born out of wedlock in 1945.
“I was neither Canadian or American: I was stateless,” Scott says.
“Canada has recognized dual citizenship since 1977 and if I'd known that applying for U.S. citzenship would disqualify or prejudice my being recognized as a Canadian citizen, I would not have done so. However, I never had any reason to doubt my Canadian citizenship. All my family, including my mother who naturalized in 1955, is Canadian."
Scott has applied for a special grant of citizenship known as a “Section 5.4”, but was denied.
“My father volunteered to defend this country in World War Two,” she says. “I believe he would be ashamed and angry that his daughter is being denied her birthright.”
A mysterious silence
So why, given the potential cost, both financial and human, is there a simpler way to resolve the problem for the remaining Lost Canadians?
Chapman says the real solution is to just give them citizenship cards.
Because the government has refused to answer virtually all questions on the matter – including The Vancouver Observer’s – it is hard to say why that hasn’t happened.
Both the NDP and the Liberals have backed the cause.
In 2009, after the latest version of the citizenship act was passed, Minister Jason Kenney told CBC News that one reason for the remaining exclusions was to prevent people who live permanently outside the country and never pay taxes from passing on citizenship to their children.
"We think citizenship is so important. It is such an important Canadian value and privilege that we want to limit it to those people who have some kind of enduring presence or commitment to Canada," Kenney said.
Critics were quick to note that with almost three million Canadians living abroad, a broader definition of citizenship, and dual citizenships, should be considered.
Peter Bramah and his colleagues could not agree more.
It remains to be seen if the courts will as well.
More on the Lost Canadian tragedy: