Some weeks ago, I was one of three staff members from the Ottawa Office who went to the first ever Summit on Statelessness in Canada hosted by a number of organizations, including the Canadian Centre on Statelessness.
Naively, or perhaps ignorantly, I assumed that “in Canada” referred to the fact that the summit was taking place in Canada. I assumed going into the day that we would be talking about the problem of statelessness in the developing world. This was not the case at all.
The focus of the day was statelessness within Canada, an issue that I had never heard of nor thought about. According to the Government of Canada, there are zero stateless persons in Canada. According to stateless persons and civil society advocates, however, this simply isn’t the case.
A stateless person is defined by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” People who are stateless have no citizenship.
Citizenship entails that people have some responsibilities to the state, such as paying taxes, voting, doing jury duty, and following laws. It also means that the state has some responsibilities to its citizens such as providing documentation including: birth certificates, passports, and health cards. Another responsibility is that of being responsible for the implementation and protections of the human rights of citizens.
People are stateless for various reasons. The most common reasons are violent conflict and discrimination. Conflict, mainly because volatility, the breakdown of institutions, and perpetual displacement can make it much difficult to register births, and unregistered babies, if nothing is done, will most likely end up stateless. Discrimination, because the rules that govern citizenship often are biased to favour men, and to favour the ethnic majority of a country. There can also be additional gaps in a country’s legislation relating to nationality that lead to statelessness. These gaps could be eliminated by countries adhering to two UN conventions on Statelessness, one from 1954, and one from 1961.
The question, “Can’t stateless people just gain citizenship from their country of residence?” is one that I have asked. The answer, unfortunately, is often No. People who are stateless, and there are at least 10 million of them globally, are not legally recognized, and thus, no state is obligated to protect their rights. Additionally, people who are stateless are often afraid to go to the authorities because they do not have documentation, so they can be arrested for living illegally within a country, even in the cases where it is their country of origin.
Life for a stateless person, even in Canada, is very difficult. Without identity documents, many simple, day to day activities are made impossible. These include: booking a hotel room, getting a library card, finding a legal job, renting or buying a house, going to school, getting a drivers license, and even getting a Costco card.
Donovan McGlaughlin, a former stateless person, spoke at the summit and knows the reality of statelessness in Canada on a personal level. Without citizenship, he felt his rights were worth “less than a dog.” This may be true, as there are legal guidelines regarding how animals in Canada are treated, but no such protection for stateless people.
Donovan was born 61 years ago, the son of a Native American father and a white social-activist Canadian mother. Because of his father’s race and his mother’s political views, American state officials told them that he would be taken into custody when he was born and would be brought up in the residential school system. Understandably, his parents did not register his birth. His birth took place somewhere between his home in the United States and Guelph, Ontario.
Because he did not know where his was born, both Canada and the US denied him citizenship. Canadian officials told him to go back to where he came from and enter legally and American officials wouldn’t allow him into the country because he did not have documentation. This lack of a birth certificate, despite having ancestry that should have guaranteed him citizenship in both in Canada and the US, meant that he had been, until very recently, unable to get any identification documents. As such, he lived a very nomadic life and suffers both from health issues and social exclusion.
The Government of Canada has not signed the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. This document provides a set of guidelines for how to allow stateless persons to have a life free from harm due to the status of their citizenship. However, Canada does not follow these processes as outlined by the United Nations.
Additionally, Canada does not have a set of principles or operating guidelines of its own to deal with statelessness. The information available for remedying statelessness within Canada is not at all clear. Even Donovan’s legal counsel, trained in citizenship law, said it was quite confusing. Even in cases where the government recognizes the plight of a stateless person in Canada, and are in the process of granting citizenship, they have asked persons to supply a birth certificate and passport, both documents that are impossible to have when stateless.
Currently a United Nations campaign to end statelessness operates under the hashtag #IBelong.
For more information, visit the website of the Canadian Centre on Statelessness or ask your library to buy the book Lost Canadians, written by Don Chapman, a former stateless person.
By Esther Isaac, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office.