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Parents applaud push to close citizenship gap for foreign-born adopted children

Canadian adoptive parents of foreign-born children are applauding a push to give their children citizenship rights equal to those of adoptees born on Canadian soil.

A parliamentary committee has introduced amendments which — if passed into law — would change a rule preventing internationally adopted children from automatically transmitting their citizenship by descent if they go on to have children outside of Canada.

Critics say the current law creates an unfair distinction between Canadian-born and international adoptees that risks negatively affecting the latter group of children, who may choose to study or work abroad as adults.

“There’s a two-tiered system,” said Kat Lanteigne. Her son Nathanael, 7, was born in Zambia.

“He does not share the same rights as any other Canadian citizen, simply because he’s adopted and was born in another country,” she said.

Nathanael, who lives with his family in Toronto, is described by his parents as a “firecracker” who loves the Raptors, playing Pokémon Go and hanging out with his friends.

A smiling little boy sits in a snow sled while his mother pulls it. It is snowy.
Kat Lanteigne said Canada’s second generation citizenship cutoff unfairly impacts children adopted from other countries. (Submitted by Kat Lanteigne)

Lanteigne and her partner, Graeme Ball, are part of a group of parents who say the law is unfair and discriminatory.

“They lose the right of being able to confer their citizenship to their children, and that has huge ramifications for people,” said NDP MP Jenny Kwan. “I’ve talked to families who are impacted in that way and they’re desperate.”

Kwan has championed amendments to Canada’s citizenship law that could lead to meaningful changes for internationally adopted Canadians, if they’re passed into law. 

“Everybody’s very anxious. We’re sort of biting our nails,” said Lanteigne.

Unintended consequence of 2009 reform

In 2009, changes were made to Canada’s citizenship laws that created a “second generation cut-off” that stops the automatic transmission of citizenship by descent to foreign-born children if both of their Canadian parents were also born in a foreign country.

It was part of a crackdown by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the number of Canadian citizens without substantive ties to Canada.

But adoptees born outside Canada face unintended consequences from this law.

If a child’s parents adopt via the direct route (often the fastest and easiest way to adopt), the law treats the adopted child the same as any biological child who was born outside of Canada — as the first generation born abroad.

Any children those adopted kids go on to have would — if they’re born outside of Canada — count as the second generation and would not automatically qualify for citizenship by descent.

“It’s identifying a target, but it’s missing that target and it’s hitting other individuals who it never meant to deal with,” said immigration law expert Donald C. Galloway, an adoptive parent and a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. 

Despite steadfast lobbying from parents over more than a decade, the only previous parliamentary movement on this subject happened in 2016. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith tabled a petition but it did not result in change.

“The current prime minister is most famous for saying a citizen is a citizen is a citizen, suggesting that we have one category and we don’t have these hierarchies within citizenship,” said Galloway. 

“But that’s what we have created.”

Lost Canadians

Possible changes to the law are being debated by Parliament’s standing committee on citizenship and immigration.

The committee is considering a Senate bill that seeks to restore citizenship for those who lost it because of a previous iteration of Canada’s citizenship law.

This bill is intended to help people who were born outside Canada between 1977 and 1982 who were told to register for their citizenship by their 28th birthday or risk losing it.

But the committee is also working to expand the scope of the bill to extend citizenship rights to additional groups.

A woman in a black suit and red shirt speaks in the House of Commons.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan proposed amendments that would change Canadian citizenship rules so current first-generation born citizens abroad citizen with a substantial connection to Canada can pass on their citizenship to their kids. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The ‘substantial connection’ test

The committee introduced an amendment, championed by Kwan, calling for the creation of a test to determine if a potential Canadian has a “substantial connection” to Canada.

The test written into the amendment states that the potential Canadian has to live in the country for 1,095 days — the equivalent of three years.

The committee also introduced a second amendment saying that any current first-generation citizen born abroad with a “substantial connection” to Canada can pass on their citizenship to their kids born abroad, provided those citizens were born after the 2009 law was adopted.

In practical terms, that means kids like Nathanael — born after 2009, having lived in Canada for three years — would be able to leave the country, have children and pass on their citizenship by descent.

Both amendments passed committee votes with support from Liberal and NDP members.

“I remain very hopeful that we can get these changes done,” Kwan told CBC News.

She cautioned that the committee hasn’t finished its work yet and even when it does, members of the House of Commons and the Senate would have to vote the changes into law.

But the mere prospect has Lanteigne and others hopeful.

She said she’s on a mission to have the rules changed before Nathanael is old enough to understand them. As the parent of an adopted boy, she said, she works hard to make him feel the same as other kids his age.

“I feel like we’re in a race to change it before he knows what it means,” she said.

A man and a woman seen with a little boy and a cake.
Lanteigne and Ball travelled to Zambia to adopt Nathanael from an orphanage. (Submitted by Kat Lanteigne)

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