The Chattel Children

In modern times Canada has become a nation that actively promotes gender equality between men and women, and protects the rights of children, both at home and abroad.

But that wasn’t always the case, and in 2008 the Conservative government came under blistering criticism globally for applying ancient, discriminatory laws to decisions on citizenship. Across the country, for decades, thousands of people were stripped of their citizenship because the government adhered to a principle that said only the father’s citizenship mattered, and the mother could not pass on any citizenship rights to her children. Articles in the CBC and The Economist, among others, blasted Canada for violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN conventions on statelessness, not to mention the obvious discrimination against women.

The people affected under these sections of the Act were considered the original Lost Canadians, known to those in the citizenship game as the “Chattel Children,” and it was within this group that Lost Canadians founder Don Chapman found himself.

Unbeknownst to him or his family, Chapman lost his Canadian citizenship as a young boy, and had to fight for almost a half-century to get his citizenship returned.

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: A Tenth Generation Canadian Rendered Stateless

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. Ironically, both her father and mother retained their citizenship, and were both horrified when their daughter and their grandchildren lost theirs.

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, she lost her job and 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.

The Mike Leetch Case: A Profile in Bureaucratic Craziness

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.

Leetch had no idea his citizenship was in question until he applied for a visa to bring his Filipino girlfriend to Canada for a prolonged visit. Instead, Leetch was told he wasn’t actually Canadian, and would have to move to the United States!

I met Mike in Toronto while I was working at the CBC Investigative Unit in Toronto in 2008, and his story became one of the dozens we told in the year leading up to the government’s agreement to rewrite the Citizenship Act.

“It’s just like, they have no common sense at all,” he said in our interview. “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!”

After that story ran nationally Leetch was almost immediately given a grant of citizenship by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, but it took several months longer before the federal government agreed to rewrite the Act to prevent further injustices.

Demographer Barry Edmonston, who was a key source in the CBC investigative series, says the vast majority of the so-called Chattel Children live abroad. He calculated there are as many as 85,000 in the United States in 2008, plus an equal number of their children.

He and others estimate there were between 10,000 and 20,000 “Canadians” living in Canada who were caught by this dilemma. Many of them also have children who would be affected.

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 finally received his citizenship after the passage of Bill C-37, a bill he had been advocating for more than two decades.


The Lost Canadians: A Struggle for Citizenship Rights, Equality and Identity

When Don Chapman was six years old, he was stripped of his Canadian citizenship, thanks to an arcane provision of the Canadian Citizenship Act. Years later, he was stunned to discover the fact, and thus began his David-and-Goliath battle to change Canada’s archaic citizenship laws.