[Gunster is now, officially, a permanent resident of Canada/Photo provided]
Qia Gunster became stateless at just 18 months old when his mother brought him to northern British Columbia from Arizona. He entered Canada without any documentation.
Gunster, raised by a friend of his mother’s in McBride, B.C., and has lived in Canada since he was a toddler, but said he grew up knowing he was not a Canadian citizen.
“I kinda always knew, I overheard conversations between my parents and other adults talking about my situation and how I wasn’t registered,” he told Yahoo Canada News. “I didn’t really understand the significance of it when I was a little kid.”
Without those crucial documents, Gunster, now 20, has been unable to get a driver’s licence, social insurance number, or any form of government ID. That means he couldn’t officially work, have a drink at a bar with friends or even check a book out of his local library.
Late last week, thanks to help from lawyer Michelle Quigg at Access Pro Bono in Vancouver, Gunster received news that he had been granted permanent residency in Canada. The next step, according to his lawyer, is full citizenship.
“It was pretty amazing, I was almost in disbelief because I’ve been fighting this so long. It’s hard to believe it’s actually here now,” said Gunster, when asked how he felt to learn he was now a permanent resident.
In addition to the work of Quigg at Access Pro Bono, Gunster credits the MP for Prince George, Conservative Bob Zimmer.
Zimmer, he said, worked for four years on Gunster’s case and advocated for him with both U.S. and Canadian officials.
Real progress, however, was seen when Quigg took on the case at the end of December. Gunster said he was introduced to her by another famous formerly stateless Canadian: Donovan McGlaughlin.
Last year, McGlaughlin — the son of an indigenous father and Caucasian mother who refused to register his birth in order to avoid his placement in a residential school — was granted Canadian citizenship at age 61 thanks to help from Quigg and Access Pro Bono.
“I read the story [about McGlaughlin] in the newspaper so I looked him up on Facebook and sent him a message and the day I contacted him was the day he received his citizenship in the mail. It was a big coincidence. But you know, we understand each other. We don’t have to explain how it feels or what an awful thing this is [to be stateless],” said Gunster.
“He’s like, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help you and get you in contact with the people who helped me.’ And from there, everything just escalated and it’s been amazing.”
Though Gunster now has permanent residency, Quigg isn’t satisfied. She is pursuing full citizenship for him under a section of the Immigration Act that allows for exceptional circumstances, the same tactic she used in McGlaughlin’s case.
According to the Canadian Centre on Statelessness (CCS), there may be thousands of stateless people in Canada, though only 1,690 people identified themselves as stateless on the 2011 national census.
According to the CCS, an individual can become stateless in one of two ways. The first includes those who are stateless when they arrive in Canada, such as refugees, or, like Gunster, became stateless after they arrive.
One possibility is to be considered stateless in situ. These are generally people who consider themselves Canadian but are not recognized as citizens. For example, under Bill C-24, a child born abroad to Canadian parents may be stateless as a result of new limits on passing down citizenship.
In acknowledgement of the support he received as he struggled for status, Gunster plans to pay back that kindness by supporting and mentoring other stateless people dealing with the same issues.
“[As a stateless person] you’re basically the lowest of the low, whether you’re homeless or not. You’re the bottom of the barrel.”