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She lost her mom in South Africa. Now she’s safe in the embrace of a new Canadian family

For 10-year-old Ryleigh Ridland it’s been a long wait for a family hug — on Canadian soil.

She embraced her new family on Friday upon arriving at Vancouver’s airport, ending the protracted legal fight with both the Canadian and South African governments to get her to this country after the tragic loss of her own mother in South Africa.

“I’m feeling very excited to be here in Canada with my family,” she said, her voice wavering as she recounted the long wait to take both her first plane rides and steps in Canada.

“I’ve been waiting. It was kind of hard.”

Ryleigh and her great-aunt Lisa Pyne-Mercier, 53, left Johannesburg for Paris on Wednesday, then after a layover flew to Vancouver. They then headed home to Shawnigan Lake, B.C., about 30 kilometres north of Victoria.

The girl had been in foster care ever since her mother’s sudden death in 2021.

A smiling girl runs in a red Canada t-shirt beside blue luggage at YVR.
Ryleigh Ridland, 10, runs to her new family upon arriving at the Vancouver airport on Friday. Four years ago, she was found alone on a remote South African farm, roughly a week after her mother had died. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Ryleigh, then seven years old, was found all alone in stifling heat on a remote rural property on Jan. 9, 2021, near the South African town of Tzaneen, about 360 kilometres northeast of Pretoria.

Her mother, 31-year-old Jackie Ridland, had died at least eight days earlier of natural causes, according to authorities. 

Somehow Ryleigh had survived alone in 40 C heat. She was taken to hospital and treated for malaria, dehydration and malnutrition.

Pyne-Mercier, originally from South Africa herself, fought for four years to bring her to Canada. 

She was confirmed as the child’s legal guardian by a South African High Court on June 28, 2022. But Pyne-Mercier says she’s faced many administrative hurdles trying to bring the girl to Canada.

The main sticking points include the fact that the girl’s father still lives in South Africa, and that her mother had named Pyne-Mercier as Ryleigh’s guardian in her will, making the case unusual, as most adoptions involve a more direct family member being named guardian.

WATCH | Victory after 4-year legal battle: 

she lost her mom in south africa now shes safe in the embrace of a new canadian family 1

B.C. woman wins fight to bring great niece to Canada from South Africa

2 months ago

Duration 2:06

A B.C. woman is one-step closer to reuniting with her great niece after four years of court battles to get permission for the girl to immigrate to Canada from South Africa.

Pyne-Mercier spent thousands of dollars on a legal push to win guardianship and full parental rights in South Africa so Ryleigh could join her in Canada, but the High Commission of Canada in South Africa turned down Ryleigh’s applications for permanent resident status in Canada and a study permit in January 2023.

The High Commission initially ruled that Ryleigh didn’t meet the definition of an “orphan” under Canadian law since her biological father is alive. Under South African law, however, she was considered an orphan due to abandonment, as her father had waived all parental rights after divorcing Ridland in 2016.

Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Battista took over the case in 2023. He was preparing for a hearing in February when news came that Ryleigh could finally apply for permanent residency.

“The needs of a child sometimes are very urgent, and the international adoption process is cumbersome and expensive and time consuming,” said Battista in an interview Friday.

He said this case illustrates the complexity of international adoptions, especially by non-direct relatives.

“The question for us here in Canada is how how much flexibility are we going to give to those relationships, particularly when there’s a situation of urgency and peril that requires recognition of a family member that can, take care of another family member who’s in trouble,” he said. 

Two girls hug at the airport in Vancouver.
Ryleigh runs into the arms of Chloe Pyne-Mercier, her new sister, on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Battista used a section of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to try to get around the Hague Convention — which protects children adopted internationally — and bring Ryleigh to Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

But he credited Pyne-Mercier as “diligent, tenacious and fearless” for her fight to bring her great-niece home.

“She’s been a model and very inspirational to to me and I think to all parents,” said Battista.

Today, an exhausted Ryleigh said she’s eager to meet new friends and teachers and to play in the snow.

“This is a Canadian treasure right here. The things she’s going to do in this country, for this country, it’s just amazing and we want to say thank you,” said Pyne-Mercier.

She said after such a long journey, there was a moment that stood out.

“What really got me was when the [customs] officer said, ‘Congratulations you are now a Canadian citizen.’ That to me was like, wow, it’s worth it. [Ryleigh] did a happy dance then.”

A family hugs at YVR after a four year wait.
Ryleigh says she’s eager to meet new friends and teachers and to play in the snow. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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