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David Crenna and his wife Elena Crenna. Ms. Crenna’s lawyer argued her client was working in the interests of Canada – not against the country – when she met with the FSB, the Russian security agency, in the 1990s.handout

A woman accused of working as a Russian spy more than two decades ago is asking the Federal Court to overturn a decision to deport her from Canada over espionage claims she and her Canadian husband deny.

Elena Crenna, the 58-year-old woman at the centre of the case, was not present at the hearing in Ottawa on Wednesday because she has left Canada over fears of a deportation order.

Ms. Crenna’s lawyer, Arghavan Gerami, argued her client was working in the interests of Canada – not against the country – when she met with the FSB, the Russian security agency, in the 1990s. Ms. Crenna was working for Canadian David Crenna, who was overseeing a Russian housing project supported by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. when she was approached by the FSB.

“Mr. Crenna had said, ‘Tell the agent anything he wants to know because we don’t have anything to hide.' And that’s what she did,” Ms. Gerami said.

Mr. Crenna hired Ms. Crenna in 1994 to work as an interpreter for the project in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow. The pair soon fell in love but lost touch after Mr. Crenna left Russia in 1996. Ms. Crenna eventually moved to California and obtained U.S. citizenship in 2004.

The couple reconnected years later and married in 2012. Mr. Crenna applied to sponsor his wife to come to Canada in 2013, but they ran into trouble when the Canada Border Services Agency starting asking questions about Ms. Crenna’s work in Russia. Despite the inquiries, immigration officials approved Ms. Crenna’s application to stay in 2018, but the government appealed.

The government has tried to advance the theory that Ms. Crenna was used as a “sex spy” by the FSB to collect intelligence from Mr. Crenna. The couple rejects the allegations, which stem from a 2008 book based on interviews with the late, defected Russian spy, Sergei Tretyakov.

In a ruling last June, Annie Lafleur, an adjudicator at the Immigration and Refugee Board’s appeal division, said the allegations made in the book were unreliable, rejecting claims that Ms. Crenna was used as a “sex spy” by the FSB. However, Ms. Lafleur said that while she is sympathetic to the Crennas, there must be “benchmarks to preserve the integrity of its immigration system, guarantee Canada’s security and, on a larger scale, protect Canada’s fundamental values" and ordered Ms. Crenna’s deportation.

Ms. Crenna has been living abroad with friends and family since the deportation order.

The ruling led Ms. Crenna to take the case to the Federal Court, where arguments centered around the legal interpretation of espionage on Wednesday. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a foreign national is inadmissible on security grounds if they engage in an act of espionage that is “against Canada or that is contrary to Canada’s interests.”

“The bottom line is that the core elements of espionage were all together absent and her loyalties were always to the Canadians and to the success of the development project,” Ms. Gerami said.

Justice Henry Brown said a key question is "whether one can be held guilty ... when you are providing information with the consent of the Canadian in charge.”

Justice Department lawyer Susanne Wladysiuk argued that Mr. Crenna was not the only Canadian official Ms. Crenna could have turned to when she was approached by the FSB, and that Mr. Crenna did not have the authority to give her permission to talk to the FSB.

Ms. Gerami urged Justice Brown to make a decision soon, given the psychological and emotional toll the ordeal has taken on the Crennas. Mr. Crenna, 75, said he is anxious to reunite with his wife.

“I think we have a chance of clearing this away and getting on with whatever is left of our lives."