Origins of Canadian Citizenship

When Canada became a country at Confederation in 1867, Canadians were "British subjects" — citizens of the British Empire, of which Canada was still a part. There was no formal act of Parliament officially acknowledging any form of Canadian citizenship until 1910, when the first Immigration Act described who could be considered Canadian — people born in Canada, British subjects living in Canada, or immigrants who had been naturalized as Canadians. The 1910 Act exempted Canadians from immigration controls that applied to foreigners.

In 1921, the Canadian Nationals Act also defined who could and could not be considered Canadian in nationality, if not in actual citizenship for immigration purposes.

Federal legislation of the early 20th century, including the Naturalization Acts of 1906 and 1914, reflected the attitudes of the time. Married women often took on the nationality of their husbands. If born in wedlock, children were also the property of their fathers and assumed their nationality. Children born outside marriage belonged only to their mothers. Fathers did not pass on their nationality to children born outside marriage.

Citizenship Acts of 1947 and 1977

On 1 January 1947, The Canadian Citizenship Act became law — the first act of Parliament to specifically formalize the status of Canadian citizenship. It came into being following several decades (beginning with Canada's sacrifices in the First World War) in which the country asserted its national identity on the world stage, apart from the British Empire. The 1947 Act recognized women as individuals, allowing them, not the national status of their husbands, to determine their citizenship. However, it did not entrench citizenship as a permanent or guaranteed right. Today, Canadians can gain or lose their citizenship at the discretion of Parliament.

The 1947 Act contained flaws — many who believed they were citizens did not in fact have citizenship. These included adopted or orphaned children brought to Canada, plus the war brides of Second World War servicemen returning to Canada, and children born on overseas military bases to actively serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

A new Citizenship Act was passed by Parliament in 1977, which tried to address some of the issues and the outdated policies of the 1947 law. However, the 1977 Act did not resolve all of the problems, and thousands remained outside the legal bounds of citizenship. This made it difficult or impossible for them to obtain government services such as Canadian passports, Old Age Security allowances — or anything requiring citizenship-related documents. It also denied them their national identity.

Don Chapman's Crusade

In the late 1990s, Don Chapman, a retired commercial airline pilot, popularized the term Lost Canadians and gave voice to many, like him, whose citizenship had been denied them or stripped from them.

Chapman was born in British Columbia, but unknowingly lost his citizenship at the age of six when his father moved his family to the United States and took out American citizenship. Chapman was shocked to learn, many years later, that because his father had given up his Canadian citizenship (but his mother hadn't), under the rules of the time, Chapman's Canadian citizenship was automatically revoked. He became an advocate for Lost Canadians and embarked on a years-long crusade to have the federal government change the law and restore citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people.

"The government blamed the Lost Canadians for their problems," says Chapman. "So it was extremely difficult getting anyone in power to take us seriously. And the only way we broke through this, is that I started proving that certain members of Parliament themselves weren't Canadian."

Chapman learned that some prominent Canadians — including former army general and senator Roméo Dallaire, as well as the parents of other senators, members of Parliament and cabinet ministers — were among the legions of Lost Canadians. After years of media exposure, direct lobbying of government ministers, and the pressure of several lawsuits brought by individuals, the federal government finally passed legislation to restore the citizenship of Lost Canadians.

Reforms

The legislative reforms came in several stages, in 2005, 2009 and 2015. In general, they restored citizenship to a wide range of Canadians who once had formal citizenship, but lost it due to earlier provisions in the law.

The reforms also restored citizenship to people born in Canada, or who immigrated to Canada, before 1947 — but for a number of reasons did not qualify for citizenship status when it was created that year.

The reforms also awarded citizenship to foreign-born people adopted by Canadian parents, and to people born in the first generation of a family outside Canada to Canadian parents.

The reforms initially granted citizenship to some second generation people born outside the country. However, as of 2016, the government remained opposed to granting citizenship to the second generation of a family born outside Canada, claiming that generations with only distant ties to Canada do not qualify.

New Citizenship Act

As of 2017, Chapman was urging the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring a new citizenship act to Parliament — one that is clear and accessible, and replaces what he calls the complex and convoluted citizenship laws now in place. "The only way to prevent something like the Lost Canadians happening again," he says, "is a new citizenship act."

In 2008, a Senate committee examining the issue also called for a new act. The committee called the existing (1977) law, "a cumbersome patchwork of technically drafted provisions, many of which refer to other provisions in now-repealed legislation. Legal experts find the Citizenship Act difficult to understand; for other Canadians it is impossible to navigate . . . members of the public should be able to read Canada’s citizenship legislation, understand the system and determine whether they are citizens."

World War Dead

The 2009 and 2015 reforms resolved the vast majority of Lost Canadian cases. They did not address the situation of Canada's pre-1947 war dead.

Approximately 114,000 Canadian servicemen and women died in the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945). Because Canadian citizenship wasn't explicitly recognized by an act of Parliament until 1947, none of these people were technically Canadian citizens. Don Chapman has launched a public petition, asking the government to declare Canada's world war dead Canadian citizens.

Types of Lost Canadians

Canadians either lost or were denied their citizenship for a variety of reasons. Lost Canadians generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • If, when you were a minor, your “responsible parent” (the father of a child born in marriage, or the mother of a child born outside of marriage) took out citizenship in another country, you lost Canadian citizenship. It didn’t matter if you wanted to keep yours, or your other parent retained theirs, or even if any of you knew about the loss at the time. As many as 85,000 children lost their Canadian citizenship under this provision. Legislative reforms have since corrected this problem.
  • If you were born outside Canada to a Canadian “responsible” parent, you had Canadian citizenship at birth. However, even if you had lived in Canada at some point, you automatically lost citizenship if you were living outside Canada at age 24 and didn’t re-register as a citizen. It is not known how many people were stripped of citizenship under this provision, having no idea it applied. Roméo Dallaire unknowingly became a Lost Canadian under this law. Born in the Netherlands in 1946, to a Canadian soldier and Dutch war bride mother, he was a Canadian army officer stationed overseas on his 24th birthday. Only well after he was appointed a senator, did it come to light that he was not a citizen; Ottawa quietly gave him a special grant of citizenship. Reforms have since corrected this provision for other Canadians.

  • If you were a war bride and didn’t officially naturalize (become sworn-in as a citizen after immigrating to Canada) you were not a citizen. At the end of the Second World War, at the invitation of the Canadian government, 45,000 war brides immigrated to Canada on ships commissioned to bring them to their new home. Despite being given official pamphlets that called them “Canadian citizens,” and despite government orders that gave them the same status as their Canadian Forces husbands, decades later the government refused to acknowledge that they were actually citizens. Ottawa told many of the now-elderly women that they had to formally apply for citizenship, even though they had lived in Canada for decades. Reforms have since corrected this problem.
  • If you were one of the approximately 20,000 foreign-born babies of a Second World War Canadian serviceman father, who arrived in Canada with your war bride mother — but she did not officially register after arrival — the government later refused to recognize you as a Canadian citizen, even if you had lived in Canada ever since. This problem was largely corrected by the same legislative reform that gave war brides their citizenship.

  • If you were born outside Canada on or after 15 February 1977 as a second generation, foreign-born Canadian, and did not reaffirm your citizenship by your 28th birthday, you lost your citizenship. This problem was corrected by reforms in 2009 — but only for people who at that time had not yet turned 28. (As of 2017, any person born second generation outside Canada to Canadian parents between 15 February 1977 and 16 April 1981 is denied citizenship.)
  • If you were a so-called “border-baby”, you were not legally a citizen. Many thousands of Canadians lived in rural areas close to the US border, without local Canadian medical facilities. For many decades, mothers crossed into the US to give birth in hospital, returning to Canada with their newborns. This was particularly common in Québec. This problem was corrected by the 2009 reforms — the exception being (as of 2017) people who are second generation, foreign-born, whose birth dates fall between 15 February 1977 and 16 April 1981.
  • If you were born outside Canada, within marriage, to a Canadian mother and foreign father, you were not a Canadian citizen. The legislative reforms of 2009 corrected this.
  • If you were born outside of Canada, and outside of marriage, to a Canadian father and a foreign mother, you were not a Canadian citizen. The legislative reforms of 2009 corrected this.
  • If you were a Canadian woman who married a non-Canadian, or a non-British subject husband before 1947, you were denied citizenship after 1947, unless you were a British subject before the marriage. Reforms have since corrected this problem.
  • If, as a Canadian, you took out citizenship in another country before 1977, you automatically lost your Canadian citizenship. (Between 1947 and 15 February 1977, at least 240,000 Canadians became US citizens, and an unknown number became citizens of other countries, thus losing their Canadian status.) Before 1977, Canada did not allow Canadian-born citizens to have dual citizenship, while naturalized (immigrant) Canadians were allowed. This discrepancy has been corrected — all Canadians can now hold dual citizenship.
  • If your birth was never registered in Canada, you were not a citizen, no matter how odd the circumstance. Reforms have since corrected some, but not all of these problems. Particularly affected were:

The 100,000 Home Children — orphaned, European children brought to Canada mainly in the early decades of the 20th century to be adopted or fostered, often by childless, farming parents in need of extra workers.

Indigenous people in Canada whose parents never registered their births, sometimes because they were fearful of the forcible removal of the children to residential schools.

Adopted children, particularly “Butterbox Babies” — children from a now infamous unwed mothers’ home in Nova Scotia, whose births were not registered before they were illegally adopted.

Canadian-born Chinese, born before 1947. They were given registration of birth documents that stated “This certificate does not establish legal status in Canada,” meaning they were stateless, registered aliens.