On the occasion of Canada’s 150th birthday, Don Chapman has a message for his fellow Canadians: don’t be too complacent.
“Canadian citizenship is nothing more than a legislated privilege, it is not a constitutional right,” says Chapman.
“Our citizenship has been amalgamation of laws that go back since Confederation. Today it is so convoluted that nobody is exactly certain who is entitled or not entitled to be a Canadian citizen.”
A retired airline pilot, Chapman has a home in Gibsons and a condo in Vancouver where he stays to be near his grandchildren. From those bases he campaigns for citizenship rights “from 5:30 in morning to 10 at night,” lobbying government and assisting individuals who are struggling with our labyrinthine citizenship rules.
Don Chapman was born in Vancouver, but his parents moved to the U.S. when he was a child and his father took out U.S. citizenship. Years later, when Chapman discovered that he had lost his Canadian citizenship, he began fighting the Canadian government over it. And he discovered that he wasn’t alone—thousands of other Canadians were denied citizenship under the law, and some were even stateless as a result.
People who had lost their citizenship included War Brides and their children who were never naturalized, foreign-born Canadian who weren’t living in Canada on their 24th birthday, border babies born in a U.S. hospital because it was the closest and then never properly registered in Canada, children born out of wedlock, children born to Canadian servicemen outside of Canada, Chinese Canadians, and Indigenous people who moved back and forth across the border.
Women were particularly affected because under the laws in effect in 1867, they were treated as chattels of their husbands. Although they gained rights as citizens in 1929, they did not gain equal rights to confer citizenship on their offspring until 2009. And for Aboriginal women there were added complications due to discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act.
Chapman founded the advocacy group “Lost Canadians,” testified before both the House and Senate, and was interviewed by major international media. The issue gained prominence after 9/11 when the U.S. tightened up border security and large numbers of Canadians applied for passports. Some discovered that although they lived in Canada, had social insurance numbers and paid taxes, they weren’t considered citizens.
Chapman eventually won his citizenship. Partly as a result of his tireless campaigning, the Citizenship Act was amended in 2008 to give Canadian citizenship to many of those who lost or never had it due to the old law, including Chapman. But he says it’s not enough. The changes don’t cover everyone who was affected, and in particular the equal rights of women are not retroactive.
“My sister’s grandchild can’t be Canadian but my brother’s can be,” said Chapman. “Women don’t have same right under citizenship laws, and we’ve frozen the discrimination.”
Chapman wants the Canadian government to completely rewrite the Citizenship Act. When interviewed for this article, he had sent the Liberal government a proposal for new legislation and set up a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss the Citizenship Act.
“We can’t really be a just society if women don’t have equal rights with men,” says Chapman. “I can’t be a good Canadian if I’m OK with that.”
For more information you can visit Don Chapman’s blog at lostcanadian.com or read his 2015 book: “The Lost Canadians: A Struggle for Citizenship Rights, Equality and Identity.”
- Donna McMahon