“Uni­ver­sally Un­doc­u­mented,”

The Catch-22 world of Cana­dian res­i­dents who aren’t cit­i­zens of any coun­try

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Tori Mar­lan illustration by Adrian For­row

In 2011, Qia Gun­ster was turned down for a cashier job at a gas sta­tion be­cause he didn’t have a so­cial in­sur­ance num­ber. In fact, he had no way to get a SIN, or any form of of­fi­cial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion — Gun­ster wasn’t a Cana­dian cit­i­zen, or a cit­i­zen of any other coun­try. He was state­less. Now, for the first time, the tenth grader un­der­stood just what that meant. He would be en­ter­ing adult­hood with­out the abil­ity to legally work, drive, or open a bank ac­count. “All the tools to sur­vive are taken away,” he says.

The prob­lem stemmed from one mis­take made in 1995. Gun­ster’s mother de­liv­ered him at a home in Tuc­son, Ari­zona, but never reg­is­tered his birth. She later drove him into Canada — cross­ing the bor­der was then pos­si­ble with­out a pass­port. She re­turned to the United States when Gun­ster was two, leav­ing him with a fam­ily in British Columbia. Not long af­ter, Gun­ster’s new par­ents tried to get him an Ari­zona birth cer­tifi­cate, but failed be­cause no early-year doc­u­men­ta­tion ex­isted.

Gun­ster grew up in Mcbride, a tight-knit town of about 600 in the Rob­son Val­ley. “He put his en­ergy and ef­forts into do­ing the best he could in ev­ery­thing he took on,” says Der­rick Shaw, prin­ci­pal of Mcbride Sec­ondary School. But as Gun­ster came to un­der­stand his predica­ment, his at­ti­tude changed. “Ev­ery­one around you, they’re go­ing to school so that they can get de­cent jobs when they’re older,” he says. “But what’s the point of go­ing to school if you’re not go­ing to be able to get a job? You’re ba­si­cally pre­tend­ing.”

Though Gun­ster had long known that he didn’t have Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship — he’d heard that, when he was a tod­dler, a gov­ern­ment worker had threat­ened to de­port him — he’d mostly been shielded from the ef­fects. When his guardians en­rolled him in school, dis­trict of­fi­cials over­looked the fact that he had no ID. The prob­lem be­came ev­i­dent only when he got in­jured. “I had ma­jor sprained an­kles,” he says, “and buck­ling in your legs where you can’t walk straight for a month.” He didn’t go to the hos­pi­tal, be­cause his fam­ily would have had to pay out of pocket.

The com­mu­nity helped in the small ways it could. When Gun­ster’s school bas­ket­ball team trav­elled, a good Sa­mar­i­tan took out spe­cial in­sur­ance in case there was an ac­ci­dent. When he wanted a work­ex­pe­ri­ence place­ment, his em­ployer paid the dis­trict, which gave the money to Gun­ster. Still, no one could pro­vide a long-term so­lu­tion.

In 2011, Shaw ar­ranged a meet­ing be­tween Gun­ster and Bob Zim­mer, the lo­cal Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive had never heard of any­one in the coun­try fac­ing this kind of predica­ment, but he wanted to help. How could the gov­ern­ment not pro­tect a young man who’d known Canada as his only home? “I thought it was a no-brainer,” Zim­mer says. But he soon re­al­ized that the sys­tem was ill-pre­pared to help — and that Gun­ster wasn’t the only state­less per­son in Canada.

The of­fice of the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHC R) es­ti­mates that 10 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide are state­less. Twenty-seven coun­tries limit a mother’s abil­ity to trans­mit cit­i­zen­ship, mean­ing a child could be left state­less if their father is un­known or dead. Canada is not one of them, but a baby de­liv­ered by a for­eign-born Cana­dian in one of the

many coun­tries that don’t au­to­mat­i­cally con­fer cit­i­zen­ship to those born on its soil could be state­less.

Nei­ther Canada’s Cit­i­zen­ship Act nor its Immigration and Refugee Pro­tec­tion Act (IRPA) ex­plic­itly ap­plies to most peo­ple in Gun­ster’s sit­u­a­tion — they do not clearly de­fine state­less­ness or of­fer any guar­an­tees of pro­tec­tion. The IRPA even lists “state­less per­son” as a sub­cat­e­gory of “for­eign na­tional,” which An­drew Brouwer, a refugee lawyer in On­tario, cites as a “beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of Canada’s fail­ure to rec­og­nize the very dis­tinct sit­u­a­tion faced by peo­ple who have no coun­try.”

Un­like il­le­gal im­mi­grants, state­less peo­ple can­not eas­ily be de­ported from Canada (often, no coun­try will ac­cept them); un­less they ar­rive as refugees, it’s difficult for them to be­come nat­u­ral­ized. With­out cit­i­zen­ship, peo­ple lack not only rights, but also what former US Chief Jus­tice Earl War­ren de­scribed as the “right to have rights.” They can be de­nied pub­lic ser­vices such as ed­u­ca­tion and health care. They can’t vote or get on an air­plane. They’re de­pen­dent on oth­ers and vul­ner­a­ble to abuse (if you’re be­ing paid un­der the ta­ble, you’re in no po­si­tion to protest low wages or poor work­ing con­di­tions). Housing is hard to find and often sub­stan­dard, as some­one with­out sta­tus can­not own or rent through the usual chan­nels.

While there’s no of­fi­cial count of state­less peo­ple in Canada, 1,690 self­i­den­ti­fied as such in Statis­tics Canada’s 2011 Na­tional House­hold Sur­vey — of those, 135 also in­di­cated they had no per­ma­nent-res­i­dency sta­tus. Ex­perts ar­gue this num­ber is low. Jo­ce­lyn Kane, founder of the non-profit Cana­dian Cen­tre on State­less­ness, says that she hears about a new case ev­ery month. Among them are In­dige­nous peo­ple whose par­ents, fear­ing res­i­den­tial schools, kept them off the grid. Kane says state­less­ness is prob­a­bly more preva­lent in In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties than any­one re­al­izes: many

With­out ci�zen­ship, peo­ple lack not only rights, but also the “right to have rights.”

in­di­vid­u­als she speaks with say, “I know more peo­ple.”

Un­doc­u­mented state­less peo­ple in Canada have few path­ways to le­gal sta­tus. The IRPA can of­fer per­ma­nent res­i­dency on hu­man­i­tar­ian and com­pas­sion­ate grounds, and the Cit­i­zen­ship Act al­lows for cit­i­zen­ship on the ba­sis of spe­cial and unusual hard­ship. But both acts rely on the dis­cre­tion of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. In prac­tice, this can lead to a kind of Catch-22 whereby ap­ply­ing for sta­tus re­quires ID — some­thing most state­less peo­ple don’t have.

IN GUN­STER’S CASE, Zim­mer’s staff drafted a per­ma­nent-res­i­dency ap­pli­ca­tion, not­ing the youth’s ties to Mcbride and sub­mit­ting DNA ev­i­dence that he was the bi­o­log­i­cal son of an Amer­i­can. The next step was a med­i­cal exam. But when he tried to sched­ule one, he was turned away be­cause he didn’t have ID. The ap­pli­ca­tion hit a dead end. Zim­mer made per­sonal pleas to three sub­se­quent immigration min­is­ters, all of whom had the abil­ity to grant cit­i­zen­ship. It didn’t work.

Fear­ing a fu­ture in which sell­ing drugs or “mooching off peo­ple’s gen­eros­ity” would seem like the only options, Gun­ster went on­line for help. He found hope in Dono­van Mcglaugh­lin, an In­dige­nous man in the Yukon who also lacked iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Mcglaugh­lin had just re­ceived cit­i­zen­ship di­rectly from then– immigration min­is­ter Chris Alexan­der thanks to the help of Michelle Quigg, a Van­cou­ver at­tor­ney who took on the case pro bono. Af­ter Mcglaugh­lin told Quigg about Gun­ster’s sit­u­a­tion, the lawyer reached out to him.

It was late 2015, and Gun­ster’s per­ma­nent-res­i­dency ap­pli­ca­tion had been stalled for two years. Quigg was soon able to push it for­ward by suc­cess­fully ar­gu­ing that a birth cer­tifi­cate was un­nec­es­sary — all that mat­tered was proof that Gun­ster was the son of an Amer­i­can.

In March 2016, Gun­ster was sum­moned to a Van­cou­ver immigration of­fice for an in­ter­view — the fi­nal step of the process. “He was shak­ing,” says Quigg. Gun­ster re­laxed only af­ter hold­ing the doc­u­ment that con­firmed his per­ma­nent-res­i­dency sta­tus. He burst into a huge smile. “I feel like I’m be­ing born,” he said.

AC­CORD­ING TO Zim­mer, the amount of time, ef­fort, and luck in­volved in help­ing a sin­gle per­son se­cure ba­sic rights shows why the is­sue must be ad­dressed. “We need a bet­ter sys­tem,” he says. “We need spe­cific leg­is­la­tion that deals with state­less peo­ple.”

A 2015 re­port com­mis­sioned by the UNHCR con­cluded that Canada’s le­gal frame­work does not rise to the level of the agency’s stan­dards. It rec­om­mended im­ple­ment­ing state­less­ness as a ground for re­set­tle­ment, and rec­og­niz­ing it as a “com­pelling fac­tor that jus­ti­fies...a tem­po­rary res­i­dence per­mit.”

Canada seems poised for more grad­ual re­form. Last April, law­mak­ers de­bated Bill C-6, which would amend the Cit­i­zen­ship Act and in­clude state­less­ness as a fac­tor that could be con­sid­ered for dis­cre­tionary cit­i­zen­ship. Kane states that this is “a good start,” but notes that gain­ing ac­cess to dis­cre­tionary cit­i­zen­ship is often costly in terms of both funds and time. Quigg, mean­while, says that “some­thing so fun­da­men­tal to some­one’s hu­man rights should not be left to some­one’s dis­cre­tion.” The bill is ex­pected to be­come law some­time this year.

Gun­ster will be el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship in 2020. He now lives in Prince Ge­orge, where he works as an elec­tri­cal ap­pren­tice. On a desk be­side his bed, locked in a safe, he keeps his most prized pos­ses­sions: the SIN card, health-care card, per­ma­nent-res­i­dency card, and driver’s li­cence that bear his name.

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