Jan Wong: Canada’s birthright citizenship policy makes us a nation of suckers
Pregnant women are travelling to Toronto from all over—China, Iran, India, Dubai, Jamaica—to have their babies on Canadian soil, and who can blame them? We’re a nation of suckers
I don’t know about you, but I constantly congratulate myself on winning the jackpot in the lottery of life. Thank you, revered ancestor, for your wisdom in choosing Canada. My grandfather, Hooie Chong, came here as a coolie in the 1880s to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Once it was complete, he paid a special tax to stay on and continue working, as a laundryman. Later, he paid triple head taxes to bring over my grandmother, their son and his wife. Family lore has it that Grandfather Chong was the 10th Chinese person to become a naturalized Canadian (albeit without any right to vote).
Now there’s a much easier path to citizenship: birth tourism. Foreign companies are helping pregnant women take advantage of our breathtakingly generous birthright policy, which grants automatic citizenship—and all the rights and benefits it entails—to any baby born on Canadian soil. You don’t even have to touch the soil: in 2008, a girl born to a Ugandan mother aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Boston was deemed Canadian because the plane happened to be in our airspace at the moment of delivery. Currently, Canada and the U.S. are the only two developed countries bestowing birthright citizenship.
For pregnant women actively seeking to jump the immigration queue, birth tourism agencies offer comprehensive package deals. One such agency is the Canada-U.S. Childbirth Counselling Services Company, based in Nanjing, China. According to their website, “the best gift you can give your newborn is a Canadian passport.” The company’s $36,200 package includes airfare, assistance with visas and paperwork, coaching on how to get through the border, private accommodation with Wi-Fi and “a special person to cook and look after your personal needs.” Among the advantages that come with Canadian citizenship, the company lists “great educational resources” and social benefits, including welfare payments of “$500 to $700 a month for a single person,” plus a Canadian passport that provides visa-free entry to more than 200 countries, including the U.S., Japan and western Europe.
Birth tourism consultants recommend that clients apply for tourist visas early and fly before they start to show. Otherwise they are advised to wear loose clothing to the airport. While some airlines such as Air Canada require a doctor’s note to fly after 36 weeks of pregnancy, in this age of political correctness, a woman is unlikely to be questioned about girth. Once at the border, birth-tourism agencies advise expectant mothers to say they’re visiting Canada to sightsee.
From there, the visitor’s experience is fairly straightforward. When she goes into labour, she’s automatically admitted into one of the many local hospitals offering high-quality obstetric care. Wendy Lawrence, in-house legal counsel at Mount Sinai, says the hospital considers every labour a medical emergency. “No matter what, we help them deliver the baby.”
Once the baby is born, the hospital opens a file and assigns a number. Hospital staff aren’t required to check the mother’s citizenship, and they don’t. The province (which is responsible for birth registration) doesn’t ask about the mother’s citizenship either—a lapse Ottawa says it will address. When mother and baby leave the hospital, they move into a short-term rental. Thanks to Canada’s streamlined application process, the parental paperwork is a breeze. It takes just 25 minutes online to register a birth, apply for a birth certificate and acquire a social insurance number. Official documents arrive in the mail a few weeks later; a passport takes another month.
With today’s relatively cheap airfares, it’s easy for non-Canadians to fly in, have their babies and then whisk their newly minted Canadian citizens back to the motherland to raise them. Upon reaching the age of 18, the birth-citizen can return to Canada and apply to sponsor his or her parents, grandparents and siblings for immigration—all without having paid a single cent in Canadian taxes.
And sometimes without even paying the original hospital bill. Last summer, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre acknowledged its finance department is concerned because some birth tourists left without paying for their care. In response to a Freedom of Information request, Sunnybrook provided data that showed that 121 women from out of the country gave birth at the hospital in the past five years, and 29 of those (or one in four) failed to pay all or part of their bills. The worst culprits were from the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Bahamas. Others came from Dubai, the United States, Israel and the Philippines. (Amazingly, one woman was from North Korea.) At least five Chinese women gave birth at the hospital, but all paid in full. The total amount of unpaid hospital bills from 2009 to 2013 was close to a quarter of a million dollars.
In response to a similar access request, North York General told me 95 per cent of self-paying patients from other countries paid their bills. Over the past five years, these women accounted for 569 births, or approximately two per cent. St. Michael’s Hospital did not provide detailed billing information but told me 311 mothers without Ontario health cards have given birth there in the last five years. Mount Sinai had 318 foreign nationals over the same period. Though the numbers could include diplomats, foreign students and landed immigrants not yet eligible for OHIP coverage, that’s still potentially more than a thousand stolen citizenships and over a million dollars in lost revenue in only four Toronto hospitals.
North York General, Mount Sinai, St. Mike’s and Sunnybrook—four hospitals with high-demand maternity departments—all declined my request to interview someone in their obstetrics and finance departments. “Everyone treads very carefully,” says an ob-gyn at North York General who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I find it very disheartening. We’re the land of milk and honey—and they just sign on and get all the goodies.”
What is Canadian citizenship worth in cold hard cash? Like a birth tourist trying to decide whether to hand over $36,200, I crunched the numbers. Canadian citizenship, I calculated, is worth about $840,000 in tangible benefits, excluding welfare payments should you end up on the dole. Assuming a current average life expectancy of 81 years, free health care alone is worth at least $485,000 ($5,988 annually, but much more if you require major surgery or a long hospital stay), according to 2013 health data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Free public education is worth $174,750, according to international tuition rates charged by the Toronto District School Board. As for university tuition, a Canadian at the University of Toronto would save $58,512 over four years, because international students pay substantially more. Finally, an average old-age pension (from age 65 to 81) totals $121,624.
And those are just the measurable assets. What about clean air and water, an untainted food supply, an absence of famine and civil war, and a charter of rights and freedoms? Another incalculable advantage comes in adulthood during the job hunt. By law, many institutions can’t even consider hiring a foreigner unless there’s not a single qualified Canadian or landed immigrant applying for the job.
It’s difficult not to feel like a nation of suckers. Birth tourism is a form of immigration fraud that gives pregnant women and their families a way to jump the queue, while wasting our tax dollars and raising serious security concerns—who knows what happens to some of those passports down the line? Immigration Canada concedes it has no idea of the magnitude of the problem, because Ottawa doesn’t record whether a woman is pregnant when entering Canada. When this kind of immigration fraud is detected (a rarity), the potential consequence is, of course, deportation of the parent, but the child would still remain a Canadian citizen.
The federal government says it’s reviewing its birthright citizenship policy and, in consultation with the provinces and territories, will try to address the birth tourism problem “down the road in an appropriate way.” Here’s an idea: how about we stop lavishing our home-and-native assets on newborns unless their mothers have spent a few years in the country, preferably as landed immigrants or citizens themselves; instead, let’s issue one-way, exit-only, good-for-travel-back-to-the-motherland documents for the infants. Canadian citizenship shouldn’t be a freebie to anyone whose mother waddles through the airport arrivals lounge. I suspect Grandfather Chong would approve.