Deepan Budlakoti is not merely a controversial case of statelessness. His story touches on so many sensitive areas, from caste systems and prejudice within India itself, to controversies over so-called bogus Canadians, that it invites opposing postures that are seemingly irreconcilable. From radical Canadian academics writing for Al Jazeera, to critiques of Canada’s justice and prison system, Deepan’s life touches on so many hot-button issues it seems an impossible story. But it is very real.
The Servant's Son
Deepan was born in Ottawa on October 17, 1989. His parents were, or had been – and this is a key issue that needs to be resolved in the strictest legal manner – employees of India’s High Commission in Ottawa. In fact, Deepan’s parents were servants of the High Commissioner, as in cleaning, gardening, and cooking. As far as diplomatic staff, they were at the very bottom rungs, and in India were undoubtedly from a lower caste. For example, the current Indian High Commissioner to Canada is a retired Admiral, the kind of grey-haired eminence you have to fight the impulse to salute as he strides past you on the sidewalk. A world, or worlds, of difference from someone washing the dishes, sweeping the floors, and bringing his eminence his daily chai. But diplomatic staff they were and, assuming they were still embassy employees on October 17, 1989, any children born in Canada to them would not qualify as Canadians under jus solis, the right of soil. This is a general rule for diplomatic staff and one that is unlikely to change any time soon. At that time, this issue was ignored or thought resolved by Deepan’s parents because they had quit their jobs at the High Commission and found work as domestic employees. Deepan was given an Ontario Birth Certificate and a few years later, a Canadian passport. The question would arise much later as their adult son served time in a Canadian prison.
The Wayward Son
Children's Aid Society [Public Domain]
It’s a familiar story in modern Canada, and one that sheds light on the migrant’s experience in adapting to their new homeland. The parents tend to retain values and customs, sometimes supported by deep religious convictions, from their country of birth, while their children grow up – or try to, that is – as fairly typical Canadian kids. A clash of values inevitably ensues and adolescent rebellion is amplified by the cultural divide. We can’t say for certain what happened within the walls of the Deepan family home in Ottawa, but as a young teenager in 2003 Deepan ran away from home and was soon in trouble with the law. He came under the control of the Children’s Aid Society and thus became a ward of the state. For the next three years he lived estranged from his family. In 2006 he reconciled with them and returned home and had some success at living a productive life, taking technical courses and working in construction.
The Case of the Man Who Thought He Was Canadian
In December 2009, however, Deepan was convicted of drugs and weapons charges. His defenders say it was entrapment and involved the sale of a hunting rifle to an undercover officer and that he was not directly involved in the drugs transaction – and sentenced to four months plus a year of probation. However sometime between December and May of 2010, prison authorities looked into the details of Deepan’s life in Canada – you can decide if that was in fact racial profiling – and informed the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) the enforcement arm of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, who investigated further and decided that Deepan was not in fact Canadian. The matter at issue is whether Deepan’s parents were still officially employed by the Indian High Commission in October of ‘89 when he was born. Since then, the former High Commissioner has written an affidavit stating that they terminated their employment with the High Commission in June of 1989, which would clearly make Deepan Canadian. However, being government employees of a country not unfamiliar with the intricacies of bureaucracies, as is the case with India, the legal question seems to be, when did they cease to be officially employed by the High Commission? Not only that, the issue is, when did Canada officially recognized Deepan’s parents as no longer being in the employ of the High Commission? Some government documents place that date in early 1990, which would mean that Deepan is not Canadian despite being born right in Ottawa. CIC and, specifically, the CBSA, has decided that he is not Canadian and given his prison record, is to be deported.
India Won't Go to Bat for Deepan
As a final complication, one that in effect has left Deepan stateless, India has refused to issue Deepan travel documents and has decided that he is not Indian. Kapil Sharma, the consular officer at India’s High Commission, has repeatedly stated that Deepan Budlakoti is not an Indian citizen. Indian-born children (one assumes that includes children born to embassy staff abroad) must be registered within the first year of the child’s life and this of course was not done in Deepan’s case. Would that have been their response if Deepan had been the son of say a trade commissioner, rather than house servants, who had run afoul of the law? Or does India not bend any rules for someone that has legal problems and faces deportation? This means that, as a stateless person, Deepan risks deportation, but to where? As well, Canada’s obligation to end statelessness, as witnessed by its signing of the 1961 Statelessness Reduction Convention, is mentioned as favouring Deepan’s campaign to be recognized as Canadian. It is an obligation, however, that was meant to apply essentially to refugees and the fact that Deepan is an ex-convict does not help.
Who Decides, in the End, Whether Deepan is Canadian?
CIC clearly believes he is not. Minister Alexander’s press secretary stated that “Deepan should not have chosen a life of crime if he did not want to be deported from Canada.” Fair enough, but it misses the point that Deepan’s nationality is what comes first. He is either Canadian or he is not. When that is finally decided, then CIC can deport him, or it will no longer have jurisdiction over him, depending on how the final ruling goes. And his prison record, legally speaking, is not relevant. And who would that be that makes the final ruling and when would that be? In September the Federal Court’s Justice Phelan ruled that he could not declare Deepan a Canadian citizen, seeing that was for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigraton to decide and he also ruled that his charter rights were not being violated. That means he will continue to live under the order of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, living at his parent’s home under curfew – he cannot leave his home before 9 AM and after 9 PM – and unable to work or study. Does Canada’s legal obligation to reduce statelessness mean that CIC must declare Deepan Canadian, despite his prison record? Or given the rules regarding children of embassy staff born in Canada, is Deepan a stateless refugee of sorts, condemned to live in legal limbo or even to be deported when and if India accepts him? Canada will have to decide eventually and it will not be a comfortable legal precedent, one suspects, for anyone involved. Deepan has cost the country substantial resources as a ward of the state and as a prisoner, but he may still in fact be Canadian.
All photos of Deepan Budlakoti used with permission, from https://www.justicefordeepan.org/
Deepan Budlakoti on CTV