Select Page

Naturalization of Married Women

April 6, 1927 — House of Commons, Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


Mr Speaker, there are many Canadian women who resent the injustice which women who are British subjects, but married to aliens, suffer in regard to naturalization. A woman may be a Canadian, she may be the grandchild of Canadians, but if she marries an alien she ceases to be a British subject. She may not resume her British nationality until her husband chooses to become naturalized; and if he dies or the marriage is dissolved the woman remains an alien until she makes a declaration and obtains a certificate from the Secretary of State. It would seem that such treatment makes naturalization of small account. It must be of little importance if adults can be naturalized without satisfying the condition as to desirability and without being required to take the oath of allegiance, and it certainly is insulting to women to assume that their allegiance can be transferred without their own consent.

Under the present law marriage and citizenship are very much mixed up. I don’t think the two should be so closely related, if related at all. There are scores of British women resident in Canada who, having married aliens, find themselves citizens of no country, unable to claim the protection of ay government, unable to vote, unable to teach or to accept any civil position should the need arise, and, in the event of their husbands’ death, unable to participate in the mother’s allowance for the benefit of their children. Because of their statelessness they find it almost impossible to obtain a passport. I have a letter from a woman in Ontario received when the resolution in regard to this subject appeared on the order paper. She lives in Prince Edward County and pays taxes, but at the last election on December 1 not only herself but twenty-five other women in the county were prevented from voting. She tells that her great grandfather was an officer in the Revolutionary war and a British subject and she describes how loyal they had always been; yet after marriage to an American, although they live in Canada and she owns large property and pays taxes, she finds herself unable to vote in any election in this country. She writes protesting against such treatment.

Last year I tried to get a passport for an Ontario girl who was married to an alien. I could not obtain the passport and she had to cancel her trip. Many other members of this House could tell similar stories. I have heard them in private conversation and if they had the opportunity to speak I am sure they could tell of experiences such as I have described. When it is considered that, in western Canada particularly, we are receiving from many shores aliens who are marrying women of British nationality; this is a matter of vital concern to Canada.

The right o women to retain their British nationality although married to aliens was enjoyed until the year 1870. Previous to that time the common law of England contained two principles: first, that a British woman who married an alien should retain her British nationality, and secondly, that an alien woman who married a British subject remained an alien. Women were regarded as the chattels; after marriage they had no right to their property, which passed into the control of their husbands. They did not possess the franchise and generally they were in a humiliating and subordinate position as compared to the status of women to-day. Yet until 1870 they had the right to retain their nationality. In that year the law was changed to provide that a married woman should be deemed to be the subject of the state of which her husband for the time being was subject. When this change was made the women of Great Britain — for this is British law — were not consulted at all, and the subject received very little debate in the House of Commons, through which it passed very hurriedly. The law was amended in 1914 to read:

That the wife of a British subject shall be deemed to be a British subject and the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien.

In the amending act of 1914, however, “Women did make certain gains. In the British nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914, women gained the principle, excluded since 1870 that a woman might be of different nationality from her husband’s. If her British husband should change his nationality, she might under the act declare that she would remain British; and a British-born woman wit a foreign husband may now apply, on the dissolution of her marriage by death or divorce, for readmission to British nationality without complying with the requirements as to residence.”

In 1922 Lord Danesfort brought forward a bill, which passed its second reading, containing two important principles: first, British women should have the right to retain their nationality when they married aliens; and second, that an alien woman should not by the mere act of marriage with a British subject become a British subject. Dissolution of parliament prevented anything further being done, but in 1923 a select committee of the Lords and Commons was appointed to consider the subject. This committee, comprising five commoners and five lords, agreed that a change was necessary. But, one of the lords dissenting, no recommendations were made when the report was presented. The objection advanced by this dissenting lord was that the change would, result in trouble, in the home. Men and women, it was urged, were one. We all now that, but the thing I wan tot know is which one? If it is going to disturb the harmony of the home to have any change of nationality on the part of either husband or wife, let the husband take the nationality of the wife. It is as far that way as the other> I have no great fear that the home will be disrupted if women are given the vote, or fi they go to work, or if they retain their nationality. Every advance made by woman has been frowned upon because of this very fear of the home being disrupted, men are always worried about this consequence, but it does not happen, for the simple reason that the real home is a community of interests so strong that it will take more than any change of nationality, more than the vote or any of these things to disrupt it. We need not worry about the home on that account.

The matter was brought forward again in the British House of Commons in 1925, when Major Harvey introduced a resolution, which was carried, to the following effect:

“That in the opinion of this House a British woman should not lose or be deemed to lose her nationality by mere act of marriage with an alien, but that it should be open to her to make declaration of alienage.”

During the course of the debate on that resolution the Under Secretary of State informed the House that after the meeting of the joint committee of the Lords and Commons to which I have referred, no agreement having been reached, the mater had been raised at the imperial conference of 1923. It was referred to a sub-committee of the conference, as will be found at page 1213 of that conference. The suggestions of the sub-committee of the conference as well as those of the joint committee of the Lords and Commons were submitted to the dominions in the autumn of 1924, but up to the time when Major Harvey was taking part in the debate on the resolution I have quoted, only one of the dominions had expressed itself on the subject. I wonder why Canada did not reply. I believe that public opinion in this country favours a change. I have no doubt it is the desire of the people of this Dominion that a British woman married to an alien shall have the right to retain her British nationality. Mr. Hurst, speaking to Major Harvey’s resolution in 1925, said:

I do not believe we ought to wait until the principle adopted in this resolution has been accepted by all self-governing dominions. On July 14, 1921, I put a question to the then Prime Minister on this subject and I was told that no decision could e arrived at util the dominions had been consulted with. That is four years ago and e are not one inch further along the road to legislation than we were then.

From the beginning we can conclude that the British House of Commons on various occasions has wanted to do something about the matter. As I have pointed out, they referred the question of the dominions, from only one of which they received any reply. I cannot see why they did not hear from our Dominion, and I think it is time the parliament of this country took whatever steps are necessary to make it possible for British women married to aliens to retain their own nationality.

The United States tried the law which we now have for the period from 1907 to 1922 when, by the Cable act, the law was changed to read:

A woman citizen of the United States shall not cease to be a citizen by reason of her marriage unless she makes a formal renunciation of her citizenship before a court having jurisdiction over naturalization of aliens.

 It was further enacted that:

Any woman who marries a citizen of the United States shall not become a citizen by reason of such marriage.

By this law an American girl who marries a Canadian becomes a British subject while still remaining a citizen of the United States, but a Canadian girl who marries an American subject while still remaining a citizen of the United States, but a Canadian who marries an American ceases to be a British subject and does not become a citizen of the United States, and is therefore a citizen of no country. There are many practical examples of this, and I am sure every member of this House is aware of some of them. The republics of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile have similar naturalization laws to those of the United States. Belgium in 1922 gave women the right to retain their nationality after marriage if they so desired. In 1924 Sweden gave women the same right, so long as they remained in Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries have followed the same procedure.

Resolutions asking for this change have been passed by women’s organizations in Canada for many years past, among those outstanding being the National Council of Women, who have time and again asked that women be naturalized of their own right, and that marriage to an alien should not affect them in anyway. The Canadian Council of Agriculture have presented this question in the cabinet almost times without number. The Women’s Institutes of Canada, have taken a firm stand upon it, together with the Social Service Council of Canada. The Alberta legislature on two occasions adopted resolutions with this problem, one of which was introduced last session by Hon. Irene Parlby and seconded by Mrs Nellie McClung, but no action was taken in this House. As I have already pointed out, Great Britain adopted Major Harvey’s resolution in 1924, and I do not see why the parliament in Canada has not taken some stand on this question.

I realize that this is an international matter, but after all it will not be dealt with in an international way until the countries affected deal with it first, and I appeal to the members of this House, in the name of the womanhood of this country to see that this injustice is removed and that women have the same right of citizenship accorded to men. I think women love their country as much as men, and since women are not to-day property as they were thought to be in days gone by, but thinking individuals, I appeal to the House of Commons to take the first opportunity to do all that can be done in this matter. Let it be taken up by the League of Nations or the next Imperial conference; let us do anything that can be done in order to remove this injustice.



Source: House of Commons, Canada, Debates, 1st Session, 16th Parliament, 6 April 1927, pp. 1983-1985.