OTTAWA – Piper Gilles had Olympic ambitions – hoping one day to win gold for Canada.
The only snag for the 22-year-old ice dancer? She was American.
So skating officials helped fast-track her citizenship application so she could have a chance of making the Canadian team at the Sochi Olympics.
“I couldn’t stop smiling, and I felt like I kind of have to pinch myself like every five minutes, is this actually happening?” Giles said during a pre-Olympic qualifier in January.
“But it did, it happened. I’m Canadian. And we’re very excited to compete for Canada.”
In the end Gilles and her partner didn’t qualify for the team – but she still has her citizenship.
To get that passport, Gilles didn’t have to write the normally-mandatory citizenship test or jump through many of the other bureaucratic hoops.
Instead her process was expedited by a special provision of the Citizenship Act allowing the minister to reward services of exceptional value to Canada.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander stands by the decision.
“She came very close” to making the Olympics, he said.
“It was the right thing to do – it passed the test of public scrutiny at the time, and we will do it in a limited number, very limited number of special circumstances in the future.”
Since 2009, the Conservative government has handed out 344 of these instant citizenships. But because of privacy concerns they won’t say who got them.
But Afghan interpreters – who risked their lives working with Canadian Forces – aren’t among the lucky recipients of fast-tracked citizenship: They had to fight just to become permanent residents.
Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, who almost took the government to federal court before a trio of interpreters were granted visas, called the process unbalanced.
“Weigh the contribution made by this interpreter, as opposed to the contribution of some potential athlete who might possibly compete in the Olympics for Canada,” he says.
“As a Canadian I find it completely unbalanced.”
Other athletes such as American ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver and Chinese pro table tennis player Eugene Zhen Wang received “instant” citizenships before the last two Olympic games.
“Discretionary grants of citizenship – to alleviate cases of special and unusual hardship or to reward services of an exceptional value already rendered to Canada – are only used in very exceptional cases, and each case is considered on its own merits,” Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Remi Lariviere wrote in an email.
“These cases are not fast-tracked amongst regular citizenship applications, but are considered under a different process.”
But some immigration lawyers say it’s not a big deal because numbers are so small.
“It’s smaller than the no-shows at the Canadian citizenship ceremonies,” said Vancouver lawyer Richard Kurland.
“So you’re not displacing a nanny or a granny for citizenship here, you’re actually filling vacancies that administratively were left on the table for emergencies just like this.”
The government says between 2011 to 2013, an average of 140,000 people per year were granted Canadian citizenship through the regular process.
With files from Rebecca Lindell in Ottawa