Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We appreciate this opportunity.
I did send a written submission late Friday afternoon, but you will not have received it or had a chance to look at it. I also placed copies at your places here before you arrived.
In my opening remarks I will summarize our two basic concerns. Before I do so, I want to mention that Johan Teichroeb, who was going to be here and whose case is described in paragraph 17(b) of our brief, could not be here because the plane was held up for technical reasons in Windsor this morning. Also, I want to introduce my colleague, Mary Boniferro, who works as a front-line worker with these people in our office in Aylmer, Ontario, south of London.
We come with two concerns. They affect all kinds of people, but for us they arise from the return movement of some descendants of those Mennonites who, in the 1920s, moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Latin American. Our first concern deals with section 8, the loss and retention provision. The purpose of this provision is entirely legitimate. It means that if you are born outside of Canada to parents who were also born outside of Canada, then if you want to retain citizenship permanently you must, before turning 28, go through a simple retention process—send in an application to register and retain, and prove that you spent at least one year in Canada.
This provision is generous, but there is an identification problem. It is hard to identify the people who come under this provision because this provision does not apply to nearly all second-generation people, and because the certificates of the people who do come under it are indistinguishable from the certificates of those who do not. It is hard for the people themselves to know if they come under this provision, and it is equally hard for government officials to know this. Hence, these people may be able to continue using their certificates because neither they nor officials in any government offices that ask for evidence of a person's citizenship will know that the certificate has ceased to be valid.
The government has recently taken two positive steps to address this identification problem. On January 1 it started placing expiry notices right on the face of new certificates issued to people who come under this provision. We had asked for this for many years. For all those who received certificates earlier—that is, between 1977 and January 1 of this year—which could include some 30,000 Mennonites and a larger number of others, the government has now also set up a better system to help them make inquiries.
Despite these positive steps, the reality is that many will not inquire. A good number will simply not know about it, and some may avoid the matter intentionally. They will continue with their lives and they will be able to use their certificates for many purposes as if they were valid.
In paragraph 11 of our submission we make recommendations for dealing with the situation. The main recommendation asks for an amnesty, meaning that the certificates issued earlier that do not carry the recently instituted expiry notice be deemed permanently valid.
Our second concern has to do with the legacy of the pre-1947 “born in wedlock” requirement. Canada's first Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 1947, stated that if you were born outside of Canada and were not yet 21 on January 1, 1947, then you were a Canadian citizen automatically if you were born in wedlock, of a Canadian father.
Some of the children of the Mennonites who moved to Mexico in the 1920s wanted to remain Canadian citizens, so they went to the embassy and applied, and to prove that they met the criteria, namely that they were born in wedlock, they presented church marriage certificates for their parents. For several decades the Canadian government accepted these as adequate proof. Then, acting upon international law that stipulates that the legality of a marriage is determined by the laws of the country in which it takes place, Canada decided to insist on civil marriage certificates, because that is what Mexican law required. The people then went to a local registry office and obtained civil marriage certificates for the church marriages that their parents or grandparents had had earlier. For many years, the Canadian government accepted these. Then, years later, Canada insisted on further proof that there really had been a civil marriage earlier.
Now, today, when officials look at an application, they inquire of Mexican authorities, and if they do not receive the necessary verification that the supposed early civil marriage actually took place, they send a letter to the applicants saying “Sorry, you are not a citizen, and the certificates issued to you or to your parents or to your grandparents were issued in error and should be returned”.
Aside from the problem facing individuals who receive such a letter, it has implications for many others. Anna Fehr, whose case has received a little publicity in Manitoba, and is described in paragraph 17(a) of our submission, is now a 20-year-old woman who received her first certificate when she was an infant living in Mexico. She came to Manitoba as an eight-year-old. Then in 2003 she sent in a new application, partly because our office in Manitoba advised her that she was probably in the lost and retention provision.
Three years later, in 2006, she received a letter saying “Sorry, you have never been a Canadian citizen, and the certificate issued to you was issued in error and should be returned, because we have been unable to verify that your paternal grandfather, Heinrich Fehr, who was born in Mexico in 1940, was born in wedlock”.
The letter to Anna has implications for a lot of people. First, Anna has two Mexican-born siblings who are not citizens either, even though they have certificates. But they have not yet received these letters. Second, Anna's father, Cornelius, is not a citizen even though he has had a certificate for 25 years and has lived in Canada for the last 12 years, nor are any of Cornelius's six siblings or their foreign-born children. Now we're talking about a large number. Nor is Anna's grandfather, Heinrich Fehr, the first person who is now established to have been born out of wedlock, nor any of his siblings, nor any of their children or grandchildren.
The number of people implicated in this one letter to Anna could well exceed 150, maybe even 200, but these people have not yet received these letters. If they lie low, they may never receive such letters, and they can continue using their certificates as if they were valid.
One related dimension is that most of these people are probably under the lost and retention provision, but the letter to Anna now stands as an incentive for them not to apply to register and retain. “Why not,” they think, “just continue with our lives and lie low”. In other words, the legacy of the born-in-wedlock requirement is a major obstacle to implementing the lost and retention provision.
The two concerns we're bringing forward are not new. They've been festering for a long time. We appreciate the positive steps that the government has recently taken, but more action is needed. Our recommendations on the second one are in paragraph 20 and on the first one in paragraph 11.
In the second issue, the main recommendation is simply to end the practice of declaring certificates to have been issued in error if the only reason for doing so is that an ancestor was born to parents who had a church marriage but did not have a civil marriage.
In addition to our two recommendations in paragraphs 11 and 20, I would like to mention one other avenue, and that is alluded to in paragraph 21 of our brief. Simply stated, it would mean being generous with those who have already received certificates, while at the same time restricting the generosity of the current section 8.
The current section 8, as it now stands, allows citizenship to be passed on to an indefinite number of generations. That could be cut off after the second generation. And then for those in the second generation, there could be a slight amendment to the act that would say they have until age 28 to get a certificate, and if they don't get it, they're simply like other people from the world at large. If they do get it, then they will be citizens permanently.
A change like that would bring a greatly needed clarity and would result in administrative savings, and it would also introduce a modest restriction on the right to dual citizenship, which has been a public concern in the last year.
Thank you very much. If there's time, then I would ask my colleague to say some things, but if there isn't, and maybe I have taken up too much time, then we can go to other—