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The National Post – Thursday, August 1, 2002

Inability to read shouldn’t prevent citizenship: ruling

Ottawa – A judge has declared that illiteracy can be a mental disability and it should not prevent a Somali woman from becoming a Canadian citizen, even though she cannot learn either official language or answer basic questions about the country.

Justice Michael Kelen, of the Federal Court of Canada, has ordered a citizenship judge to reconsider Faduma Hassan’s eight year quest to become a Canadian, taking into account evidence that the 55 year old Toronto woman has shown a “medical inability” to learn a new language.

Mrs. Hassan, who came to Canada in 1994, has twice failed the test to become a citizen, despite taking daily English lessons. She has made little progress because she is illiterate and never attended school in Somalia, so she was never taught how to learn, said Mrs. Hassan’s daughter, Asmahan Mussa.

Mrs. Hassan can speak a few words of English but cannot read or write, said Ms. Mussa.

Judge Kelen sent the case back for another citizenship judge to re-evaluate, based on his conclusions that her illiteracy should not be used against her.

“It is clear that the citizenship judge failed to understand that Mrs. Hassan has taken advantage of the opportunity to improve her education, but is mentally unable to take advantage of this opportunity because of her learning disability,” Judge Kelen wrote.

Mrs. Hassan’s lawyer, Max Berger, said he suspects many landed immigrants are in the same situation as Mrs. Hassan and have never become Canadian citizens because of illiteracy. “The tragedy is there are probably many people who failed the test and they do not know where to turn so they remain landed immigrants,” he said. “I guess you can argue they remain second-class citizens.”

Under federal law, exceptions can be made on compassionate grounds for people to be excused from the citizenship test. But to be considered, they must have a mental disability, a physical disability or disease, or be too old to learn.

Illiteracy is not considered a mental disability and therefore it is not listed as grounds for compassion.

That’s because illiterate people have the capacity to learn and can therefore eventually pass the citizenship test, citizenship Judge Doreen Winks suggested in her April 2000, letter denying Mrs. Hassan status.

“I have met many applicants who have been in the same situation and have at least used the incredible [language] programs we have to offer immigrants at no cost and who benefit from such teaching,” Judge Winks wrote. “You must be able to understand and answer correct simple oral questions based on the information contained in self-instructional material approved by the [the citizenship, and immigration] minister.” Mr. Berger said that not all illiterate people should be treated the same.

“Somebody can be illiterate but still have the capacity to become literate,” he explained. “But at a certain point illiteracy would be a disability if there’s no capability or capacity to become literate.”

Isaac Smith, a Toronto learning consultant who evaluated Mrs. Hassan, concluded there is no chance she will ever learn English. Her language teacher reached the same conclusion in a letter in Mrs. Hassan’s court file.”Her history reveals a woman who appears never to have set foot inside a classroom prior to beginning English classes here in Canada,” Mr. Smith wrote in a four-page report.

“She is completely illiterate, even in Somali. For all intents and purposes, she is like a very young child given paper, pencil and books for the first time who is expected to learn to read and write but is clueless even as to where on a page to place her gaze.”

A spokeswoman at the Citizenship and Immigration Department said yesterday that she did not know why citizens must be able to speak English or French or answer questions about the country.


Max Berger is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba and was educated at the University of Manitoba and York University. Mr. Berger is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. He has represented immigration clients from all corners of the world and in every area of immigration law.

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