FORT KENT, Maine — In her heart, Louise Albert never stopped being a Canadian, even though she had to renounce her citizenship in 1972 to attend college in the United States after having come to this country on a work visa.
Now, thanks to a recent amendment to the Canadian Citizenship Act, Albert and close to a quarter-million of her potential countrypeople can have dual citizenship.
“I’ve always felt Canadian,” said Albert, 63. “When I found out about this [new law], I was so excited.”
The April 17 amendment to Canada’s Citizenship Act automatically restored Canadian nationality to many people forced by Canadian law to renounce their birth country when they became citizens of another country. It also grants citizenship to their children.
U.S.-born citizens in the 1970s could, and still can, become dual citizens without renouncing the country of their birth.
Laws vary from country to country, but Canadians living as U.S. citizens will retain dual citizenship under the Canadian law.
In the early 1960s, Albert and her older brother Jean Albert, 66, were part of the wave of people from both sides of the St. John Valley who traveled south to Connecticut in search of good jobs. The siblings grew up in St. Francois, New Brunswick, just across the border from Fort Kent. The two have since retired and moved back to Fort Kent.
“There was no work around here back then,” Jean Albert said. “In 1962, I got my [work] visa and came across [the border].”
In 1970, Jean Albert said, he filled out the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen. “I was living here and I wanted to vote,” he said.
The Canadian government doesn’t know the precise number or location of individuals affected by the new legislation, but U.S. Department of Homeland Security records show 240,000 Canadians were naturalized in the United States from 1948 to 1977, including Jean Albert and Louise Albert. The Canadian government says the change could affect hundreds of thousands of its former citizens.
In addition to re-granting citizenship, Canadian officials say, the new law is aimed at increasing the value of that status.
“We really want people to appreciate what it means to be Canadian,” Danielle Norris, spokeswoman for Citizen and Immigration Canada in Ottawa, said in a phone interview last week. “We want to make sure people who are Canadian citizens really value and appreciate it and know what it means.”
To do so, the Canadian government has tightened several parts of the citizenship law, including that affecting children born to Canadians outside of Canada. Before April 17, any child of a Canadian citizen or their descendants were eligible for citizenship.
“Now that is limited to just the first generation born from a Canadian parent outside the country,” Norris said. “Before, there were no real restrictions.”
The Canadian government is not officially contacting any of the “lost Canadians.” Instead, it is relying on modern technology, with a video airing on the Internet site YouTube.
In the ad, titled “Waking up Canadian,” a man awakens on April 17 to find his formerly drab room crammed with Canadian flags, maple leaves, a stuffed plush moose and a hockey player, and is greeted by a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Norris admits YouTube is not a medium normally used by the demographic representing the lost Canadians — those who emigrated between 1948 and 1977 — but she said it presented the best approach.
“We wanted to make sure we hit the widest variety of people,” Norris said. “We had a sense of how many are out there, but not who or where they are.”
With millions of people logging on to the Web every day, Norris said, her office is confident the video will reach the intended audience.
“YouTube does attract the young crowd,” she said. “But these people have parents or grandparents who may be affected, and they will certainly tell them about it.”
Norris said the video is an example of Citizenship Canada “really thinking outside the box, even if it is not directly aimed at the right demographic.”
Jean Albert and Louise Albert had no idea of their newly bestowed dual citizenship status until contacted by the media late last week.
While they automatically became Canadian citizens on April 17, they do not receive proof of that status unless they apply for it.
“The onus is on the individual,” Norris said. “Technically they are now citizens, but they need to apply for that proof from the Canadian government.”
Louise Albert planned on doing just that as soon as possible, but her brother is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I really never gave renouncing the citizenship much thought, as long as I could work,” Jean Albert said. “Right now I don’t have any plans to go for proof of Canadian citizenship.”
Louise Albert said she planned to call the appropriate Canadian office as soon as possible to get the ball rolling.
While the news of their updated official status came as a pleasant surprise, Louise Albert said she had an inkling of things to come when last year she spoke to officials in Fredericton, New Brunswick, about transitioning from volunteer to salary work at the church in Clair, New Brunswick.
“At the time, they told me to wait a year because it should all be taken care of by then,” she recalled. “This is what they meant.”
Louise Albert recently finished up course work to become a pastoral agent at the St. Francois church where she volunteers as an assistant to the priest and coordinates catechism classes for children.
A registered nurse by training, Louise Albert said the only way she was able to gain admission into a nursing college back in 1972 was to become a U.S. citizen.
“That was back when [Richard] Nixon was president and during the Vietnam War,” Louise Albert said. “I remember the judge looking at me and asking why I would want to become a U.S. citizen when so many Americans were trying to go to Canada to avoid the war. He also apologized for Nixon.”
Louise Albert also remembers the portion of the citizenship oath in which she not only had to renounce her birth country, but also swore to “take up arms” against any enemy of the United States.
“I saw we had to fight against any foes — even Canada — and that always bothered me,” she said.
“When we swore to become American citizens, we had to renounce our old country,” Jean Albert said. “In 1977, the word ‘renounce’ was taken out of the oath.”
Norris said she doubts all 240,000 of the lost Canadians in the United States will reapply for their citizenship en mass, but said her country is “ready to welcome them back with open arms.”
Once that proof of citizenship is re-established, Norris said, individuals are eligible for all Canadian social and medical programs and will receive a Canadian social security number.
Norris said no information was available on how many people have sought that proof of regained citizenship to date.
“I’ll probably look into it,” Jean Albert said. “But I don’t see myself moving back across the border since I have everything all set up in this country.”
His sister, while eager to re-establish her status as an official Canadian, did have a small confession.
“I love hockey,” Louise said. “But I don’t root for any of the Canadian teams — I’m a Boston [Bruins] fan.”