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Lawsuit aims to return citizenship to elderly "lost" Canadians

VANCOUVER - Peter Brammah sailed with the Canadian navy and later worked for Calgary's police force.

Despite serving this country as both a naval and police officer, he can't actually call Canada his own.

When he applied for a passport in 2002 — more than fifty years after moving here at age 10 — he was swiftly denied. Pointing to an archaic set of laws, the government informed him he's never been a citizen.

So the 75-year-old will file a lawsuit Monday, aiming to set a precedent to force the return of Canadian identities to thousands of other elderly people who similarly believe they've been unjustly excluded.

The suit in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver comes days ahead of Remembrance Day.

Brammah is part of the so-called "lost Canadians," people whose nationality was stripped or never granted in the first place owing to kinks in citizenship legislation.

He was left out even after the 2009 passage of Bill C-37, an amendment that rectified several long-standing inequities and retroactively brought what's believed to be hundreds of thousands of people back into the fold.

That's because Brammah was born before 1947, the year Canada's first citizenship act came into force.

Brammah was born in England to British parents, but the marriage broke up when Brammah was a small child. His mother became involved with a Canadian soldier and the couple later had a daughter.

Marion Vermeersch, Peter's half sister, said in an interview that military rules prevented her parents from marrying until after the war — a year after she was born.

Once married, the family moved back to Ontario and from the age of six, Peter's Canadian father was the only one he ever knew.

"It was such the shock of our lives in 2003 when Peter was told he was not a Canadian," Vermeersch said in an interview.

Her brother had applied for a passport for the first time after spending years travelling the world on naval papers.

"When he joined the Canadian navy in 1952 and they went through all his documents, there was no question he was a Canadian," said Vermeersch.

Don Chapman, who has long advocated for improved and more equitable citizenship laws, said Peter's case highlights the absurdity of the government's position.

"Should Peter go to his grave after serving and being honourably discharged from the military and be told 'You're not Canadian?'" asked Chapman.

"As we honour all the Canadian soldiers — but particularly those that died for Canada in World War One and World War Two — they're all going to be deemed not Canadians ... if the government wins this suit."

Chapman, once a lost Canadian himself, says he's buried four war veterans lacking status since Jason Kenney took over as Citizenship and Immigration Minister in the Conservative government.

Though a driving force behind Bill C-37, Chapman was frustrated that about five per cent of all people affected by the convoluted laws remained disenfranchised.

Going to court is the only avenue Chapman feels they've got.

"This has got a lot of tentacles and it's going to affect a lot of people and potentially cost a lot of money," he said, adding the suit is only the first in a series of planned legal manoeuvres.

Asked whether the government has considered bringing the remaining thousands of people into the fold, Remi Lariviere, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the amended legislation resolved the vast majority of cases including people born before 1947.

He said the information available suggests those still left out is small.

"Anyone who has been living in Canada most of their life and has the mistaken belief that they are a Canadian citizen, may be eligible for a discretionary grant of citizenship," he said in an email. "Such grants are made on a case-by-case basis by the Governor in Council to relieve special and unusual hardship or to reward exceptional service to Canada."

The courts have tested issues similar to Brammah's before, the highest-profile case being that of Joe Taylor. The son of a British Columbian D-Day vet and British war bride mother was also denied citizenship by the courts.

The law excluded him because he was born before his parents married and because he left Canada as an infant with his mother before the 1947 citizenship act was passed.

Taylor initially won back his birthright in a Federal Court ruling, only to have it overturned by the appeal's court. He was looking towards taking it to the Supreme Court of Canada when his certificate was bestowed under the special grant by cabinet described by Lariviere.

According to a 2008 news release from then-Immigration Minister Diane Finley, "the government felt it had to pursue the court case because the issue had legal implications which went beyond Mr. Taylor."

That was just before Bill C-37 came into effect. Brammah's case will be the first major action since.

"I think it will affect all of us," said 66-year-old Jackie Scott, herself a lost Canadian who's been fighting for her citizenship since 2004.

She plans to attend the filing of Brammah's suit in support and is hoping it will help bring resolution to her own feeling of lost identity.

"You're being told you're being thrown away, this isn't your home, go away," she said. "You love your country, you're proud of your country, I'm proud of where I grew up and of my parents.

"They're saying I don't have the right to do that."

Chapman said he knows the laws inside and out and feels confident in the power of the new case, but he still sees Ottawa as his biggest obstacle. More than anything, he said he feels his cause is simply being ignored.

He said after the first wave of people were handed back their citizenships, some people came back home to receive benefits. But most of those who were given their Canadian status already live here and are afforded the same rights as others. Extending citizenship to people like Brammah won't cost much extra, he said.

"Dr. Willard Boyle came back. He won the Nobel Prize. Canada is now claiming him as one of their own," Chapman said.

"So the ramifications, really, if there's anything, it's only a positive for Canada."

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