Trouble Proving Citizenship Hitting Military Families
by Natalie Salat
Thousand of military brats and other children born overseas to Canadian parents between 1947 and 1977 are being advised to make sure their citizenship papers are in order, or risk having problems applying for government documents and services.
That's because of a bureaucratic morass that emerged last year, after the United States came up with new passport requirements for travelling to the U.S. (starting with air passengers in 2007). In the rush to obtain passports, hundreds of people who believed they were Canadian citizens by birth were told by government staff that they were not--or that they didn't have adequate proof.
Much of the confusion surrounds one particular document--the certificate of Registration of Birth Abroad (RBA), which had to be obtained for children born overseas to Canadians between 1947 and 1977. The document was no longer issued as of 1977, due to changes in the Canadian Citizenship Act. It can still, however, be used as proof of citizenship to obtain a passport or social insurance number if it is in good condition. Unfortunately, not everyone may be aware of that, including some frontline staff at Passport Canada and other government departments.
Military brats were not the only people to be denied passports, or citizenship. Some were "war babies" born to a Canadian father serving overseas before the original Canadian Citizenship Act came into force in 1947; others were born to Canadian parents who moved to another country and then lost their citizenship. And there are others.
Canadian war brides have taken up the cause. The Royal Canadian Legion passed a resolution at its convention in 2006 supporting the war brides in asking the government to recognize the original granting of Canadian citizenship to the offspring of Canadian Forces personnel born abroad.
Dominion Vice-President Erl Kish represented Dominion Command at a hearing of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration March 19. "These Canadians are the offspring of veterans who put their lives at risk while serving overseas to protect Canadian liberties and freedom. It is an affront to these proud Canadians that bureaucrats should now suggest that a birth certificate is not a birth certificate," Kish told MPs.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley said her department is working to address the "small number" of cases where people have been affected by anomalies in the Citizenship Act.
In late February, she told the committee that additional department employees have been assigned to handle cases of potential lost citizenship, including a dedicated unit in the department's call centre (1-888-242-2100). As of March, more than 880 calls had come through. Of those, said Finley, only 27 cases required further review. However, more than 450 cases were already being fast-tracked by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
"In most cases, where it is a question of the loss of citizenship, a program officer is being assigned to each case," she asserted. "We are working with our partners to ensure that, while cases are under review, nobody is removed from the country, and benefits such as health care and old age security continue....We are also helping to expedite the process for people who have not lost their citizenship, but rather (who) have lost their proof of citizenship and need to apply to replace it."
The applications of war babies are on hold, pending the legal resolution of a case going through the courts. The citizenship and immigration minister is appealing a Federal Court ruling that found in Joe Taylor's favour and determined him to be a Canadian citizen (Journal, November/December). Taylor was born to a Canadian father during World War II, but spent most of his life in Britain after his parents divorced. Finley stated that Taylor had few ties to Canada, and that the Federal Court judge had erred in law.
Whatever the outcome of that trial, critics maintain that Finley is downplaying problems with the Citizenship Act. Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi (Kitchener-Waterloo), who chaired the citizenship and immigration committee under the previous Liberal government, observed, "Instead of wasting tax dollars fighting to uphold Neanderthal legislation and terrifying people, the government should do the right thing and revamp Canada's archaic and unconstitutional Citizenship Act."
Christine Eden is another person who has been advocating for bureaucratic, if not legislative, change. A military brat with a degree in customs law, Eden addressed the citizenship committee on Feb. 26. She got involved last year, after organizing a reunion for fellow brats at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station in Grostenquin, France. She discovered that many people were having trouble getting passports, driver's licences and other documents because they were told they didn't have adequate proof of their citizenship.
Between 1947 and 1977, children born to Canadian military members stationed overseas had to be registered with the host country; the parents obtained a certificate of Registration of Birth Abroad, which also went to the military file and to Ottawa. If the child was living outside Canada as of his or her 24th birthday, he or she had to apply to the government to retain citizenship, according to the 1947 act.
But, said Eden, "We were never advised of this requirement (to turn in the RBA for a citizenship card)." Instead, she says, military children--most of whom went back to Canada--"went merrily along their way, thinking everything was OK, because they were working, they had social insurance numbers."
Mark Davidson, CIC's director of citizenship policy, emphasized that only those Canadians born abroad between 1947 and 1953, and who were not living in Canada on their 24th birthday, were required to turn in their RBA for a citizenship card. That's because the rules changed in 1977.
As of Feb. 15, 1977, under the revised Citizenship Act, Canadian parents no longer had to register children who were born abroad. Instead, the kids were issued a Citizenship Certificate. They no longer needed to take special steps to retain their citizenship unless their parents had also been born overseas. This relaxation in the rules even applied to people born after 1953, said Davidson.
The problem was, many frontline employees at the CIC, Passport Canada and other departments weren't aware that the RBA certificate could be used as proof of citizenship, noted Eden. In some cases, the RBA wasn't even in the system. Human Resources and Social Development Canada removed the RBA from its list of acceptable documents in 2002.
Eden brought this to the government's attention in July, she told the citizenship committee. "As pledged, officials from CIC and the Department of National Defence wrapped up a fact-gathering review at the end of September 2006. At that time, both ministries advised me that the RBA was put back into the system as proof of (citizenship), enabling us to apply for a citizenship card or passport."
Despite this assurance, people were still having difficulties with their applications, Eden continued.
Davidson said Citizenship and Immigration Canada has had many discussions with both Passport Canada and Human Resources and Social Development Canada to clarify the status of the RBA certificate. "We're being assured that these rules are understood. I can't guarantee you that in 100 per cent of the cases they are, but certainly the clear message from HRSDC and Passport Canada is that the RBA is, and has always been, recognized as proof of Canadian citizenship."
Eden nonetheless emphasized the importance for RBA certificate holders--whether military brats, the children of diplomats, or otherwise--to apply for citizenship cards, as not every federal or provincial department recognizes the certificate as proof of citizenship. The process takes up to three months and costs $75.
This advice is echoed on the Department of National Defence website, www.forces.gc.ca, which recommends, "Even if your paper RBA certificate is in good shape, you should consider getting a Citizenship Certificate (Proof of Canadian Citizenship) card. It's more durable and more widely accepted because of its enhanced security features and photo identification."
Meanwhile, Finley maintained that her department is "taking action" to help people resolve their cases. She added that she was open to considering appropriate amendments to the Citizenship Act. "I'd welcome the committee's participation in further examining the nature and scope of the problem to help us identify and evaluate a number of options."