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‘She Could Put Israel Instead’

A 90-year-old Palestinian-Canadian woman was told she could not use Palestine as her place of birth on her passport.

by Navi Kahlon
A Canadian passport with information written on it.
Marie’s most recent Canadian passport (personal information redacted), showing “Palestine” under her place of birth. (Photo courtesy of Blair and Marie)

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Despite an apology from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and a resolution that recognizes her birthplace as Palestine, the trauma of dealing with her passport renewal has left a Canadian grandmother upset and confused.

What should have been a simple renewal process became hours of argument after an (IRCC) representative left a voicemail telling Marie her birthplace would not say Palestine on her Canadian passport, according to her granddaughter, Blair.

Blair — going by her first name for her family’s safety — posted about the incident in a viral TikTok video on Feb. 23. 

“It was bigger than a random document. It was like in the face of a genocide of her people, one that she had already experienced, or in the midst of the trauma of watching it [on TV], having Canada perpetuate that onto her by refusing to acknowledge Palestinians as existing and as her place of birth was really traumatic for her,” Blair said.

Her grandmother and grandfather were survivors of the 1948 Nakba, which resulted in the expulsion of about three-quarters of all Palestinians.

“This is to advise you that, per your previous passport, when we do issue your new passport per policy, your place of birth will be the exact same as the last passport. It will read al-Bassa, no country of birth printed,” the unnamed employee from Service Canada stated on a voicemail to Blair’s grandmother on Feb. 21 that was included in the TikTok video.

According to Blair, her grandmother responded to the voice message, saying “They’re trying to erase us like we never existed.”

On Feb. 22, they called Passport Canada to discuss the voicemail they received. According to Blair, the agent told them the IRCC’s policy was that the renewal would have the same information as the previous passport, to which Blair’s grandmother noted it would be the same since she wrote Palestine on her renewal form.

“He said she could put Israel instead,” Blair said. “She said, ‘no,’ she wants it to reflect her place of birth, Palestine.”

On three previous Canadian-issued passports to her grandmother – valid between 2003-2024 – Blair said they read “El Bassa, Palestine.” Al-Bassa was a village in Mandatory Palestine (so named because of the British Mandate for Palestine), near the Lebanese border. Today, the village is known as the town of Shlomi, Israel.

Blair says her grandmother was put on hold and the agent returned saying she would have to file a new application for her passport renewal.

“She said it wasn’t an issue in the last renewal. He put her on hold again. He came back and said he was submitting a request for Palestine to be written on the passport and she would get a call about it,” Blair said.

She stated her grandmother thanked the agent, because it meant a lot to her to have her place of birth written correctly as Palestine on her documents.

Blair found the agent’s initial statement about putting ‘Israel’ instead as offensive, as she said it “perpetuates the genocide and erasure of Palestine and the Palestinian people by Israel, with Canada’s help.” 

A communications advisor for the IRCC said via email that they were unable to comment on individual cases due to privacy legislation, but that “there have been no recent changes to the country list available in the Canadian passport application form. The process remains that if the applicant was born before May 14, 1948, and requests Palestine as their country of birth, they can do so by going into the application drop-down menu.”

In order to add Palestine, a user will have to select the “Other” field and enter “Palestine” under the “Please Specify” category. 

According to commenters in a StackExchange online forum, the IRCC has issued passports with similar mistakes for people born in countries whose borders have changed or no longer exist, including Indians born before August 14, 1947, in India before the partitioned region became the country of Pakistan.

When applying for a new Canadian passport, the option of choosing Punjab – the region of British India that was split into independent India and Pakistan – has “West” and “East.” Punjab West is automatically designated as Pakistan, whether or not the individual was born in the region before it was Pakistan, which is reflected on their Canadian passports.

A passport cannot be renewed unless all the information on previous passports remains the same. Individuals who want to reflect their actual birthplace, if written incorrectly on their current passport, have to redo the entire process by having a guarantor sign their application, get their Canadian citizenship documentation, and have two references who are not relatives.

A passport renewal form from the Canadian government.
While investigating the process of passport renewal and the options given to those from regions that have changed since their birth, OTR found the Canadian passport form did not include accurate information for Indians and Pakistanis from pre-partitioned areas. (OTR/Navi Kahlon)

The Consulate General of India in Toronto even issued a form with common mistakes Canadian passport holders make addressing this issue for Indians and Pakistanis. The form, an application to apply for an Indian visa, references not adding Pakistan as the passport holder’s place of birth – or their parent’s place of birth – if they were born before 1947, despite what their Canadian passport may say.

Meanwhile, Blair’s family was told by another agent on Feb. 26 that the passport was out for delivery, but would only read “El Bassa,” without Palestine written on it.

“They said to see what the passport says when it’s delivered. If it doesn’t say Palestine, she can try to make a change later. She was very confused by this,” Blair said. 

Blair said her grandmother told the agents “how traumatizing this experience was. She told them that agents should understand the different cultures as Canada is made up of many immigrants coming from all kinds of circumstances and not all of them will know to challenge these policies.”

Since October 2023, Blair has posted about Palestinian rights and activism, with largely positive responses.

“It brings me to tears. Every time I go to a protest, I just cry because I can’t believe how many people are standing up for Palestinians and their rights,” said Blair.

“I think a lot of people think it has nothing to do with them, but it really does because all oppression is linked, right? Like, no one can be liberated until everyone is liberated.”

The latest conflict in Gaza began on Oct. 7, 2023 when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped another 253 in an attack on various kibbutzim. Israel responded by bombing and sending troops into the Gaza Strip and killing more than 30,000 Palestinians to date. The war in Gaza started more than 75 years ago, but this latest escalation prompted South Africa to bring an accusation of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) who found it plausible that Israel committed acts violating the Genocide Convention.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said this week that Canada will stop sending arms to Israel. According to the government’s website, Canada sent $21 million worth of military material to Israel in 2022.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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