This Article is part of the Lost Canadians special report See the full report

Canada's most irritating activist gets the job done

Canada has finally granted Don Chapman his citizenship, but he is not so willing to give up his 35 year battle so long as other Lost Canadians remain in limbo.  This is the seventh installmant in a ten part series about an injustice that may outlive a number of its victims.

Photo by Megan Stewart

By his own description, Don Chapman is irritating. Politicians grow weary of hearing from him, he says.  But he never gives up. His persistence has made him immensely effective in gaining the attention of officials who would rather not pay attention to an injustice that effects hundreds, possibly hundreds of thousands of people with rights to Canadian citizenship.

At the faculty club of the University of Washington in late April,  Chapman is arguing with a woman who always thought she was a Canadian citizen. Turns out she’s not Canadian — or she wasn’t for most of her adult life but now is, again — and like anyone confronted with such news, she’s confused and she’s angry.

Chapman smiles, his blue eyes seeking hers, and insists, “As I told you: you’re a Lost Canadian.”

The woman said she was born in Canada and moved to Washington State to study. “I was here for less than a year and always had my passport,” she rebuts.

Chapman persists. “But the fact is, where were you on you 24th birthday?”

She was in Seattle. It’s as if he snaps his fingers. Lost Canadian.

Scenes such as this have become a constant and driving purpose for Chapman since a similar same fate befell him as a boy.

“Canada is a country that has turned against its own citizens,” he often says.

Because of archaic and patriarchal citizenship laws, Chapman unknowingly and through no fault of his own, forfeited citizenship when his father did, meaning the son was never able to get it back.   “I come from the hardest country to become a Canadian citizen. I come from Canada," he often says.

Although born in Vancouver, a detail confirmed in his passport, the passport Chapman carries is that of a U.S. citizen.  Inside the dog-eared document lurks a decal that declares Chapman an immigrant in the country of his birth.

“It’s a insult,” he said, during an interview with the Vancouver Observer.

Then he launched the small book through an open door into another room.

Chapman’s story is emblematic of the type of indiscriminate bureaucratic cluster bomb only partially overcome in Canada’s most recent citizen laws. Though he, Jackie Scott, Sandy Burke and an unknown amount of others are likely to find similar snares as war era retirement looms, the legislation under which Chapman has now been christened a citizen--- and Scott and Burke denied--- is different. Prior to 2009, there were twelve ways to lose ones citizenship, in addition to the big number thirteen: falsifying a claim. (The ‘lost’ don’t fall into that latter category).

Unlike Scott, Chapman’s slip was that he was born in wedlock (obscure citizenship law # 1). Had he been born to unwed Canadian parents in the USA, he would have been Canadian. Under the laws of his time, for those born between 1947 and 1977, citizenship for purposes of nationality in wedlock could only be passed down by the father.  

Sound ludicrous? It is.

 Only after 35 years and three amendments to Canadian citizenship law did Chapman finally receive his national stripes in 2009 with Bill C-37. The whole situation could have been avoided had Chapman hired a lawyer at age 17 and filed a formal legal process. But, like most 17 year olds, he was not aware of Canada’s finicky citizenship laws, nor aware that his nationality was ever in doubt.

As determined and dogged as he has been over the course of four decades, Chapman maintains a presence that is almost childlike. He is fair and blonde, average height. He smiles easily and will hold your gaze like a boy who needs you to straighten his tie. Chapman also has a terrific force of will; he will just not take “No” for an answer.

He has been responsible for rewriting Canada’s citizenship laws, not once or twice or even three times — but on five different occasions, made all the more remarkable by the fact that during it all he was not a Canadian citizen. Even his arch nemesis, the honorable Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Conservative Jason Kenney, whom Chapman says won’t return his phone calls, has recognized Chapman on the floor of the House of Commons.

“This government, Parliament and the Liberal Party adopted Bill C-37 in the last Parliament to correct the Citizenship Act to welcome back to Canadian citizenship hundreds of thousands of Lost Canadians,” Kenney said in March 2010 as opposition parties critiqued C-37 because of those still left behind. “It eliminated discrimination in the 1947 act on grounds of gender, which is why Don Chapman said that it ends 140 years of discrimination against women and children.”

A pretty decent ‘shout-out’ for someone who can’t even get a phone call returned.

Chapman’s tireless lobbying and personal financial contributions to the cause is responsible for thousands of people being able to make claims to Canadian citizenship, and still he says his struggle is not over. He insisted passionately as ever to the Vancouver Observer that he is ready to throw all of his clout to bat for Jackie Scott if her latest application does not go through.

“Not until everyone is back home will I stop,” he said.

Like any person with a redemptive past, Chapman sees the world through the lens of his ordeal, through the frame and mini-celebrity of being the unofficial leader and spokesperson for Lost Canadians. His website is often the first place people go when they face their initial denial. He confronts what he considers discrimination and persists at every turn until his audience is of accord in outraged agreement. Chapman even compares Canada’s inconsistent citizenship laws to human history’s worst race- and gender-based crimes. Such persistence has won him airtime in Canada’s highest legislatives committees.

Following the presentation at the University of Washington, Chapman lets out a hoot. The event organizer has just told him she received a call from the Canadian consulate in Seattle. They urged her to change the name of the presentation, The Lost Canadians. While perhaps only a coincidence, anyone who has been battling as long as Chapman is bound to suspect the possibility of Big Brother in any dark corner or university lectern. There is even rumor of a ‘Chapman’s List’ in Lost Canadian circles – blacklisted asylum seekers doomed to be harassed at the border and denied citizenship for being associated with such a pesky lobbyist.

The reality, however, is that most who have sided with Chapman’s ‘Lost Canadians’ movement have achieved their birthright.

 

Don Chapman at hockey camp in Vancouver  in the mid 1960's

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