(TORONTO STAR.COM)A Guyanese-born man has been granted a last-minute reprieve from deportation so he can stay in Canada with his daughter, a Canadian aboriginal girl for whom he is the sole guardian.
On Friday, the Federal Court of Canada held an emergency hearing into Curtis Lewis’s plea, and stayed his deportation to Guyana until a government tribunal decides whether to reopen his appeal to restore his permanent resident status.
“It’s a huge load lifted off my shoulders,” said Lewis, after he got the news late Friday. It was just hours before he was supposed to leave his sister’s Ajax home with his 7-year-old daughter, dubbed “Alexandra” to protect her privacy, for their 10:45 p.m. flight for Guyana, where they have no family.
“We’ve had so many ups and downs over the last seven years, but I’ve always had faith in people.”
The Canada Border Services Agency had scheduled Lewis’s deportation with his daughter, even though leaving Canada would have meant the girl would lose her connection with her aboriginal community, culture and history for an uncertain life in Guyana.
“We are certainly relieved by the court’s decision,” said Lewis’s lawyer, Allison Rhoades, of Toronto’s Refugee Law Office.
“That said, it’s still pretty shocking that the federal government came this close to effectively removing a First Nations child from her own country, without really giving a moment’s thought to her unique rights and interests as a First Nations child.”
Alexandra, who will be going to Grade 2 in September, hasn’t been feeling well since Monday, when border officials declined Lewis’s request to defer his removal until a decision is made on his request to reopen his appeal.
For days, the girl had sifted through all her belongings, picking what she’d pack into her tiny suitcase.
“We packed what’s important. All her pictures. Her school works from kindergarten. And she asked if we could just stay in Guyana for one day, then go to Hawaii,” said Lewis.
“We didn’t even have time to get her the shots that she needed to travel to Guyana. We got some bottled water, because I don’t know if she’d get sick with the water there.”
All day Friday, Alexandra had her father’s cellphone with her, waiting for their lawyer to call.
“She just screamed, ‘We are staying! Can we go to the park now?’” Lewis said with a laugh.
Lewis’ lawyers had argued that Canadian officials, in denying their client’s request for a deferral, failed to assess the best interests of the girl, who, like her mother, is a full-status member of the Gwich’in First Nation.
A spokesman for CBSA could not be reached for comment Friday. The agency had said, in rejecting Lewis’s request for deferment, that it was not within its authority to assess Alexandra’s “long-term best interests.”
While expressing sympathy for the difficulties the move would bring for the girl, a CBSA officer pointed out in a decision last Monday that as a member of a First Nation, Alexandra would be entitled to come and go from Canada as she chooses and would be well cared-for by her father.
Lewis came to Canada with his family in 1966 when he was 7 and has never been back. His permanent residency was revoked in 2005, three years after the last of his four minor convictions for assaults dating back to 1979 — the longest sentence being 14 days in jail.
A tribunal heard his case and gave him a chance to restore his status if he avoided any criminal offences for a year. However, when he failed to check in with immigration officials at the end of the year, his attempt to reinstate his status was deemed to have been abandoned and a Canada-wide warrant was issued.
The matter was further complicated by the substance abuse of Lewis’ common-law wife, which led to the court awarding sole custody of Alexandra to her father.
While grateful for a second chance, Lewis said having his life and his daughter’s in limbo over the past seven years has been torturous.
“I was lost in the system. On paper, it didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do, and boom, we’re going to have you deported,” he said.
“I didn’t sleep. I was thinking we’d get to Guyana at 6 a.m. and I’d have to feed her and find a hotel. We have nobody in Guyana and we wouldn’t know where to look.”
Lewis’ lawyers have asked to reopen his “abandoned” appeal for permanent residency and requested that Citizenship and Immigration Canada grant him immigrant status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Both decisions are pending.