Being stateless in Canada: ‘less rights than a dog’

Daily Brew

[Qia Gunster’s mother travelled to northern B.C. when the 20-year-old was a toddler. But he has no papers and is one of thousands who are stateless in Canada. PHOTO COURTESY: Qia Gunster]

Qia Gunster has lived in British Columbia pretty much his entire 20 years, but he has no papers. Because he’s stateless, he is unable to drive, buy liquor or even visit his family in the United States.

“It feels like a huge mockery around me. People happy with the freedom they enjoy,” Gunster told Yahoo Canada News. “I am here among them with less rights than a dog.”

Gunster’s mother travelled from Arizona to northern B.C. when he was less than two years old. She managed to cross the border without having documentation for him. Qia’s adoptive father, Eric Gunster, says Qia’s mother feared that as a poor, single mom authorities in the United States would take her son away, so she decided to leave her boy with Gunster.

“I want to be able to walk into a bar and have drinks with my friends,” says Qia Gunster. “I would never start a family as a stateless person. I want to finally feel like a human and be treated with some respect.”

Thousands likely stateless

The Canadian Centre on Statelessness (CCS) estimates there are thousands and thousands of people in the country who do not have citizenship. Official numbers are unreliable as people have to report their statelessness and for the most part, many are under the radar and have a deep distrust of government.

A 2011 National Household Survey counted about 1,690 persons but the association says that is a low-ball number and believes it to be “in the thousands.”

According to the UN refugee agency, about 10 million people in the world are considered stateless.

Stateless people live off the grid,” Jocelyn Kane, CCS executive director, told Yahoo Canada News. “They work in the underground market, pay cash for everything and they are extremely vulnerable and often marginalized.”

There are a few ways a person can be stateless in Canada: they are refugees with no documentation, their parents came to Canada but did not tell border authorities or they are born Canadian but are stripped of their citizenship because of a legal loophole.

Kane adds her association has recently encountered individuals among First Nations who do not have birth certificates and have lived “off grid” for many, many years.

“These people are typically in their 50s or 60s and they were born during the time of residential schools,” she says. “The government would locate children by hospital records, agents would enter reservations and take the children. Eventually First Nations parents realized this and decided not to register their children.”

Considering more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit students were forced to attend government-sponsored, church-run residential schools from 1870 through to the 1990s, the number of stateless people in Canada could be immense.

Donovan McGlaughlin was one such case. Born to a Caucasian mother and a First Nations father, his family moved around Canada to avoid authorities. He has lived in the Yukon for 30 years, living off hunting and fishing. Then a series of heart attacks in 2010 and a subsequent $130,000 medical bill forced him to seek citizenship.

His application to the federal citizenship minister was approved in May. McGlaughlin has pledged to help others just like himself.

“My name is among the names of citizens of this great country. I plan not to waste that gift,” he told Maclean’s magazine.

“If you are a non-refugee stateless person in Canada, you are really out of luck,” points out Kane, who adds that McGlaughlin is one of the lucky few. “There is only one legal recourse and that is to make a request to the Minister of Citizenship on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.”

Kane says refugees have many organizations and lawyers who can help but many others do not.

[Qia Gunster, riding his bike in McBride, B.C., at five years old. PHOTO COURTESY: Qia Gunster]

Life without paperwork

The people of McBride, B.C., have embraced Qia Gunster. He was allowed to attend school and is now working towards becoming an electrician, studying in Prince George. He’s doing his apprenticeship and has been finding work that is paid in cash, so far. But having no identity papers means he can’t get his licence.

“I don’t exist unless I have [this] piece of paper attached to me.”

Attempts have been made to locate a birth certificate but to no avail. Paperwork is what stops the process, says Kane.

“Canada is a signatory to the 1961 UN convention on reducing statelessness but it didn’t sign the 1954 convention to protect stateless people,” explains Kane. “This means we do not have any pathways under citizenship or immigration law for stateless people to acquire status.”

Kane says she and her team of experts are in the midst of trying to contact the new Liberal government to make this happen.

“I am seeing more and more stateless people come out of the shadows to contact me,” notes Kane. “If you have no SIN, you have no healthcare, no driver’s licence and no bank account or credit card. Your world becomes very small.”

Getting status

Kane says Canada needs to set up a procedure where stateless people can go through the steps as other countries do. One of the obligations will be for “proof of connection to the country.”

In some cases, people have had children born in Canada, they have teachers who can vouch for them, friends or neighbours or their church, synagogue or mosque officials.

Muhammad El-Bhatta, a Palestinian who lives in London, Ont., but has no papers and is stateless, has a refugee lawyer who is championing his case.  

The 64-year-old is feeling doubly persecuted. Born in Gaza in 1952, he was “born a refugee.” After graduating with an engineering degree in Turkey, he worked in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), married another Palestinian and had three children in the UAE, which does not confer automatic citizenship to people born there.

“I am a Palestinian; no one wants us.”

However, Canada opened its doors and the family landed in the country in 1999 and got Permanent Residency (PR). Unable to find work in Canada, El-Bhatta moved his family back to the UAE in 2002 and that’s when his troubles began.

When they tried to travel back to Canada, the embassy there refused to provide them papers on the basis that they hadn’t spent the requisite two years as residents in Canada before leaving again. El-Bhatta appealed and got a hearing in 2005. He won but they didn’t get their travel documents until 2007.

Moreover, they were being conferred PR only on a yearly basis, having to renew and then waiting for another PR card. Then in 2011, it stopped. They became stateless.

“I try to be good, be happy for my children. I don’t want them to grow up like me — a refugee,” says El-Bhatta.

“I think the new government may be more open to help,” he says. “We are human beings. We can not go on like this.”

Gunster insists he is Canadian in every respect.

“Everything I have ever known is in Canada,” he contends. “I grew up with Canadian values instilled in my brain…I grew up in a Canadian home, learned to speak the way Canadians do with all our slangs. I went to Canadian schools.”

Citizenship is everything to him.

“I remember one time in high school, we had to do this survey to see what type of job we would be good at and I refused,” he recalls. “There was no point in me doing it because I wasn’t going to be able to work when I get older.”

While trying to keep his hopes up, Gunster says he feels “sub-human.”

“It is quite depressing, knowing you don’t belong anywhere [and] being treated with less dignity than an animal.”