Meredyth Cowling’s family settled in Niagara in the 1700s, and she still lives in the family’s farmhouse, tending its remaining 10 acres of land.
She speaks proudly of her forebears’ ties to the area, from her English ancestors who moved north after the U.S. War of Independence to immigrants from Germany who helped to build the city of Niagara Falls, including several of its hotels.
Now in her 70s, she says her sons want to continue to live in their small pocket of Ontario, as six generations have done before them. But they worry Canada’s citizenship rules may force them to leave the country.
Two of Mrs. Cowling’s children, Will and Jack, are among a subset of “lost Canadians,” so named because, although they grew up in Canada, they do not qualify for Canadian passports. Fourteen years ago, they lost the right to count as Canadian, as neither they nor their parents were born in Canada.
“What happens to someone like me is you grow up thinking you belong, and then you discover you don’t really exist here,” Will Cowling said.
Among the lost Canadians are “border babies,” living in communities straddling the Canada-U.S. border.
Mrs. Cowling was born in a Niagara hospital just across the border in the U.S., on the recommendation of doctors. Her father worked on both sides of the border, and her family crossed back and forth to study, shop and attend medical appointments.
“In those days it was all so fluid. You just went back and forth. There were no passports or ID or anything like that,” she said. “The hospital is a stone’s throw from the bridge. My mother was one of 21 Canadian girls one year to have graduated there as a nurse.”
Mrs. Cowling later worked for an airline in the U.S. for a number of years, giving birth to her boys there. When she moved back to Canada, Will and Jack were 6 and 12, and she was told at the border they qualified as Canadian because she was. But years later when she applied for official paperwork, she discovered to her surprise that they did not qualify for Canadian passports because of a law change in 2009.
A Senate bill, supported by the Liberal government and now going through Parliament, seeks to reverse a change made by Stephen Harper’s government in 2009 that stripped second-generation children born abroad of their automatic right to citizenship.
Bill S-245 would change the law so if a Canadian parent could demonstrate a “substantial connection” to Canada, their child would again qualify for a passport.
It would also reinstate citizenship for a group of people born between 1977 and 1981, classified as “second generation born abroad,” who failed to reaffirm their citizenship by the age of 28.
The bill has passed through the Senate and most of its Commons stages, including in committee.
“We support the bill and encourage all parties to do so as well,” said Bahoz Dara Aziz, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marc Miller.
But the NDP’s immigration critic Jenny Kwan accused the Conservatives of stalling its progress and “playing petty political games,” including filibustering debate at committee, to reduce its chances of becoming law.
She accused the sponsor of the Senate bill in the Commons, Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan, of slowing the bill’s passage in the House by twice switching its scheduled third reading debate with another bill. Mr. Hallan and Tom Kmiec, the Conservative immigration critic, would not comment.
“Canada needs to fix the lost Canadians issue once and for all. The Conservatives were wrong to strip the right of parents to pass on their Canadian citizenship to their second-generation-born-abroad children 14 years ago,” she said. “In the case of William and Jack Cowling, it means they do not have the legal status to work in Canada and the family farm that has been in their family for six generations is now in jeopardy.”
Both boys have plans for the farm and Will Cowling, 26, says he wants to work in the residential building trade. He has been offered jobs building houses that he can’t accept because of his lack of a social insurance number.
His mother says being in limbo has been deeply unsettling for her sons, and they don’t want to leave after she had a fall and serious concussion.
“As they said, ‘We don’t want to leave.’ We’ve been here for generations,” she said. “It’s like living on a knife edge. They don’t think I can manage on my own. Honestly, I don’t know where we would go.”
Don Chapman was among the “lost Canadians” who have had to reapply to become a Canadian. As a child, his father moved to the United States and took out citizenship there. Mr. Chapman has been campaigning for years for changes to the rules, which he says have split families and left people stateless.
Indigenous people from communities straddling the Canada-U.S. border are among the thousands who have lost their right to citizenship, Mr. Chapman said.
The Cowlings, he said, “had no idea that they fell outside the laws of citizenship – and they’re not alone.”