Prior to the passage of Bill C-37 in 2009, at least 74,000 Canadians faced a bureaucratic nightmare that never seemed to end, and it all centred around a simple accident of their births.
This category of Lost Canadians became known as the ‘Born Abroad Babies’ during the years when activists were fighting for amendments to the Citizenship Act, that later became known as Bill C-37.
While there were two sub-categories of these Born Abroad Lost Canadians, the basic problem was that Canadian law at the time did not cover off the frequent occurrence of Canadians being born abroad.
In the United States, if you’re born to American parents, then you have the inalienable right to US citizenship for the rest of your life.
In Canada, up until 2009, many Canadians in exactly that circumstance were arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship, and without a hearing.
The first category of Born Abroad Lost Canadians were those born abroad pre-1977 to Canadian parents.
THE BARBARA PORTEOUS CASE
Back in the 2000s I was working for CBC’s Investigative Unit on the Lost Canadian’s story, and the federal government of the day claimed that there were only 450 people who were affected by the problems in Canada’s Citizenship Act. However, that was merely the number of currently active cases at the time.
We knew, by acquiring demographic data from the government, that there were at least 300,000 people affected, and the real number was actually much higher.
So, after being roundly criticized by people skeptical of our story, I made a bet with my colleagues. I told them there were so many Lost Canadians that I could go to any small town in the country, and easily find at least one Lost Canadian in 24 hours flat.
And that’s what I did. I travelled to the town of Osoyoos, BC, with its 5,000 inhabitants, and asked random people if they knew anyone who had been born in the United States. Within three hours I had found two Lost Canadians, and one of them was Barb Porteous.
Porteous was born just across the border in Washington State while her parents were working there. It was common at the time for Canadian and American labourers to work on both sides of the line in the fruit industry, and Porteous just happened to be born on the American side prior to 1977.
Porteous moved back to Canada permanently as a teenager and her citizenship was confirmed at the time. She got married, raised kids, ran a business, and even worked for Elections Canada!
But, in 2006, when she applied for her passport, Porteus received a letter from CIC that stated, “As you have ceased to be a Canadian citizen on June 14, 1960 … you are presently residing in Canada without status. You will therefore need to contact immigration and inquire about how to regularize your status and obtain permanent residence in Canada.”
As well, Porteous was told she’d have to remain a Permanent Resident for at least one year before she could even apply for Canadian citizenship.
Digging deeper, the reason Porteous was stripped of citizenship was a little known clause that said, if anyone born abroad is living outside the country on their 24th birthday, they automatically lose their citizenship without a hearing.
In her case, Porteous was in the United States for six months, helping a relative run a small resort. Other than that trip, she lived her entire life in Canada.
After our story ran Porteous was told she could apply for a grant of citizenship, and it was subsequently granted, but thousands of other Canadians were left hanging in limbo for years or even decades.
The situation is even worse when you consider that the courts ruled in one case that the federal government had not made an “earnest effort” to explain this quirk in the law to people who might be affected.
THE CASE OF GARY GRANT
One of the people affected was my uncle Gary Grant, who was my mother’s oldest brother. I was named after my uncle, but despite our close family ties I was never aware that my uncle was a Lost Canadian until our investigation at CBC was almost over.
I only found out because my mother had heard the news stories and worried her brother could be affected … and then called him only to find out that he had already lost his citizenship decades earlier.
“I never told anyone because I was quite embarrassed about it,” he told us on the phone.
My uncle Gary’s story was quite similar to that of Barb Porteous. My grandfather was an electrician who sometimes worked on ‘high steel’ projects in the United States, and it just so happened that Gary was born while my grandfather was working in Chicago.
Both my grandfather and grandmother were Canadian, and neither had dual citizenship at the time.
When the job was done they went home to Manitoba, and registered my uncle’s birth with the border officials. At that point, they thought, everything was fine.
But, it wasn’t.
When Canadian officials found out my uncle was born abroad, they stripped him of his citizenship and told him he was actually an American citizen, even though the US government didn’t agree.
He was suddenly left in limbo. A major in the Canadian Air Force, Gary was about to lose his career, his home and his pension, all in one bureaucratic fell swoop.
Fortunately, high ranking military officials interceded and told Ottawa that Gary was an important part of a critical Air Force team, and the Minister of the day granted him citizenship under Section 5.4 of the Act. However, regaining his pension took years of legal battles.
The Second Generation Born Abroad
Another category of people facing similar issues were those who were affected AFTER the laws changed with the introduction of the 1977 Citizenship Act.
Porteous was affected by the earlier 1947 Act, but that only affected people born before 1977.
The new law simplified the situation for Canadians born abroad, saying effectively that anyone born outside Canada but to Canadian parents would retain Canadian citizenship for life.
However, it also added a clause that stated that any child born abroad to a Canadian that was also born abroad would lose their citizenship automatically if they did not renew their status prior to their 28th birthday.
The problem was, just as the government did a very poor job communicating the requirement to be in Canada on your 24th birthday to the earlier group of Born Abroad Lost Canadians, so too did they fail to inform many people about this requirement under the new Act.
As a result, many people had no idea they had an obligation to ‘renew’ or ‘reaffirm’ their status.
THE CASE OF JOHAN TEICHROEB
One such person was Johan Teichroeb of Kingston, Ontario, who was born in Mexico to Canadian parents and remained there for about six months.
Teichroeb lived in Canada for his entire life, other than that initial six months as a baby, but he was completely unaware of the requirement to renew his status until it was already too late.
When we met in 2007 Teichroeb was living in a terrifying legal limbo, allowed to live in Canada, but without any of the benefits of citizenship. For his family the effects were disastrous.
Teichroeb was a truck driver and his job required him to cross the border into the US to make deliveries. He subsequently lost his job, was ineligible for Employment Insurance, and the bank foreclosed on his house when he was unable to meet his mortgage payments.
After the CBC told his story, Teichroeb’s citizenship was instantly reinstated, and the Department was ordered by former immigration minister Monte Solberg to inform all second-generation born abroad Canadians of the need to reinstate their citizenship.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Since that time the federal government passed Bill C-37, which restored citizenship to many people, and prevented many others from being affected in future.
However, the situation for Second Generation Born Abroad Canadians was made even worse.
At that time the Harper government was facing an influx of Lebanese-Canadians who returned to the country as refugees during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.
Conservative MP Garth turner claimed many of these Canadians were “Canadians of Convenience”, and had established their Canadian citizenship only as a “safety net” in the event they needed to flee their own country.
As part of Bill C-37 the Harper government updated the law so that any child who is the second generation of Canadians born abroad would not necessarily be a Canadian citizen.
While the intent may have been reasonable, the implementation of the law was not, and as a result, many more Canadians are once again known as Lost Canadians, through no fault of their own.
By 2011 the Canadian government announced it would be revoking the citizenship of 1,800 people for obtaining their citizenship through fraud, and by 2012 they had raised that number to 3,100.
To learn more, and to find out what we’re doing about it, read our section on The Second Generation Born Abroad.