An Indelible or Tenuous Right? A Reflection on the Evolution of Canadian Citizenship Through the Lens of British War Brides and Their Children

Chelsea Barranger

“Will they let me be buried a Canadian, if they won’t let me live as one? I’m serious, because it is that important to me … it’s my total identity.” [1] — Sheila Walshe, Kelowna, BC, CBC News, “In Depth: Lost Canadians War Babies in Limbo,” March 2007

When the Stephen Harper Conservative government created the special provisions for ‘Lost Canadians’ in 2014, it also created additional amendments to the Citizenship Act which tightened requirements to become a citizen and even eliminated the ability to appeal to the Federal Court when a citizenship application was refused.[2] While the Justin Trudeau Liberal government has replaced or altered the wording of a number of these amendments in 2017, the fact remains that legislation can be altered in a manner that restricts citizenship to specific individuals based on class and race and can be amended in such a way that you could go to bed a citizen and wake up the next day unsure of your status.

Citizenship is a status that most of us take for granted. Growing up you are taught in civics classes that citizenship refers to rights and responsibilities attributed to citizens of a particular nation, that are granted either through birth in the nation and/or to parents of the nation who are abroad; or through an application process. Those born into or having acquired citizenship see it as an indelible right. But, as Sheila Walshe’s statement makes clear, our status as Canadians is not fixed but incredibly flimsy. Access to citizenship has always been politically charged and exclusionary at its worst, making it

My great-grandmother Vera (an English war bride) and my great-grandfather Todd (a Canadian serviceman).

an important subject of study for historians and politicians alike. By examining the citizenship quandary of British war brides and their children, my research demonstrates that access to and retainment of Canadian citizenship in the past and to this day has been restrictive, confusing, and tenuous.

But, before I get ahead of myself, I should explain how citizenship is connected to my research. My paternal great-grandmother and my maternal grandparents grew up in the UK during the Second World War before immigrating to Canada in the post war period. Living in a multi-generational home, I was often regaled with tales of my grandparents’ experiences in the war and initial settlement in Canada, which sparked my interest in both the history of immigration and war and society. My Nan, Vera, was an English war bride and the inspiration for my dissertation – the postwar settlement and adaptation of British war brides in Ontario and Quebec. From 1942 to 1946 some 48,000 war brides immigrated to Canada. Despite this influx of immigration into Canada, little has been written about these women, with the historiography focused on the transcription of war brides accounts. My dissertation aims to provide a more comprehensive and critical analysis of British war brides, and to include them in the historical discussion of Canadian nation-building, immigration, and the Second World War.

Early in my research it became clear that Canadian government and military officials disputed the citizenship status of British war brides during the Second World War. The fact that this was disputed at all is fascinating as prior to 1946 Canadian citizenship was non-existent. Both Canadian servicemen and British war brides were British subjects – so what was the problem?

This conundrum goes back to the use of ‘Canadian citizens’ in the 1910 Immigration Act. At this time, all individuals born or naturalized within the British Empire and Commonwealth were British subjects and had the ability to move freely throughout the Empire. While in theory everyone had ‘equal status,’ in practice access to rights and privileges was denied to some based on their gender or race. The 1910 Act was created to

Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Citizenship Act, 1946, chapter 15.

so that Canada could assert greater autonomy in immigration e.g. the Continuous Journey Regulation.[3] The Act used the term “Canadian citizen,” which had no legal meaning at the time. It was used to provide a distinction between those British subjects born and naturalized in Canada from those British subjects and/or ‘aliens’ immigrating to Canada.[4] It thus represented an early attempt by lawmakers to add local specificity to the concept of the sovereignty of the British Crown, which made everyone under the crown a “subject.”

The language used in this Act inadvertently created problems for war brides and their children in the future. Its prohibitory immigration provisions meant that dependents of Canadian servicemen could be denied entry in to Canada unless classified as ‘citizens.’[5] To address this issue, Orders in Council were passed in 1944 and 1945 (P.C. 7318 and P.C. 858) that granted the dependents of servicemen the same status as their husbands and/or fathers if they wished to enter Canada – making them ‘Canadians.’ Again, citizenship in this case meant local specificity under the Crown, but war brides did not necessarily understand this.

Shortly thereafter the 1946 Citizenship Act was passed and granted automatic citizenship to the dependents of Canadian servicemen. However, the Actdid not cover all dependents. Wives who had married or arrived in Canada after the Act was implemented in January of 1947 were not granted citizenship even though movement of dependents continued into early 1948. Children born out of wedlock were also not granted the citizenship of their fathers and war brides who divorced their husbands would lose their status. Often, these dependents were unaware of these provisions. Additionally, amendments to the Citizenship Act in 1977 further complicated the matter. New provisions required those war brides and their children who had been granted automatic citizenship to apply for proof of citizenship. However, most of these women and their children were not aware of the provisions of the new Act. As a result, they often discovered when applying for passports throughout the 1970s-2000s that they either lacked proof of citizenship or had not technically secured their citizenship.

However, proving one’s citizenship was not always easy for this group. When war brides and their children arrived at Pier 21, they were not provided with any proof of citizenship, nor were they told to apply for it. Their travel documents were merely stamped landed immigrant as you can see on my Nan’s travel certificate below. While

My great-grandmother’s travel documents from 1944 – example of the ‘Landed Immigrant’ stamp applied by officials at Pier 21.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officials recognized the automatic citizenship granted to this group, they still required documentation to prove marriage status and landing in Canada, including birth and marriage certificates – sometimes lost or destroyed over time and expensive to replace – or passenger lists of arrival in Canada – which due to military security and secrecy during the war are not always accurate and are only available on microfilm at Library and Archives Canada.

My Nan applied for citizenship because she wanted to travel and inadvertently circumvented this issue. The inability to prove Canadian citizenship can have immense effects on the everyday life of those women and their children. Many have been denied the right to vote, to get passports, or to claim pensions. For some, this situation has been psychologically damaging, since their identity as Canadian citizens has been questioned even though they have lived in Canada for most of their lives.

The increasing number of affected individuals resulted in the creation of a Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in 2007. The findings and recommendations of this Committee led the then sitting Conservative government to amend the Citizenship Act in 2008 and 2014. These amendments resolved the status of many individuals dubbed ‘Lost Canadians’ by allowing them to apply for a special grant of citizenship. However, a number of individuals found this measure to be insufficient as it did not recognize their status as Canadian citizens from when they first arrived in Canada. Additionally, the amended Acts included provisions that made it harder for new immigrants to acquire citizenship. While these provisions have been largely repealed now, who knows how many individuals were affected by them or what other groups may experience citizenship conundrums like war brides and their children.

This is a scary prospect to consider as it took decades for war brides and their children to become aware of the provisions or amendments that affected their status. This is particularly alarming as Canadian government officials have lauded war brides as builders of the Canadian nation, with Canada Post even releasing a commemorative envelope to war brides at the same time as a Standing Committee on their citizenship status in 2005. If this cherished community has had difficulty navigating citizenship legislation and getting a response from the federal government, how would more at-risk minority populations fare?

The answer is poorly, as seen in the ongoing Windrush Scandal in the UK, where thousands of individuals who immigrated to there from the Caribbean from 1948-1971 have been told they are not British citizens due to similar bureaucratic mishaps – including lack of paperwork and landing records being destroyed by the British Home Office. The Windrush Generation has faced detainment, loss of voting rights, and threats of deportation due to their inability to prove their status. This Scandal demonstrates that racism and bureaucratic incompetence plague access to citizenship within the Commonwealth to this day. The struggle that they face, and that British war brides and their children have faced in Canada, also demonstrate that citizenship is not the indelible right that so many Canadians assume it to be.

Chelsea Barranger is a PhD candidate in History at McMaster nearing the completion of her dissertation. She graduated in 2013 from Brescia University College, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario, with an Honours Specialization in History and in 2014 from McMaster University with a Master of Arts. Her research interests include Canadian history, specifically the 20th century history of immigration, women, gender, war and society and the meaning and evolution of Canadian citizenship and nationalism. Her current work syntheses these interests into one project. Chelsea’s dissertation focuses on the postwar settlement and adaptation of British war brides in Ontario and Quebec.


[1] Statement by Sheila Walshe of Kelowna, BC, who at the time had been fighting for her citizenship for 16 years. This is a statement she made to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. CBC, “In Depth: Lost Canadians, War Babies in Limbo,” CBC News March 2007.

[2] Lost Canadians’ refers to individuals, including but not limited to war brides, children of war brides, children born out of wedlock, children whose fathers became citizens of another country, etc. who believe that they are Canadians citizens but have lost or were not officially considered citizens due to changes in or obscure and sexist wording in Canada’s Citizenship Acts.

[3] The Continuous Journey Regulation prohibited the landing of any immigrant that did not come to Canada by continuous voyage from their home country. This regulation made it incredibly difficult for immigrants from India or Japan to come to Canada. It represented an attempt by Canadian lawmakers to ensure that only individuals of an ‘acceptable’ white background could immigrate to Canada.

[4]Aliens was a term used in immigration legislation to refer to individuals who were citizens or nationals of a given country who wished to immigrate to another country. In Canadian immigration legislation, aliens referred to non-British subjects.

[5] Servicemen and their dependents could be separated by prohibitory policies surrounding illness, failed medical examinations or a child having a physical or learning disability.

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