News / Canada

Ottawa appeals ruling that returned citizenship to son of Russian spies

In June, the appeal court ruled in Alexander Vavilov’s favour. The government says the “absurd result” of the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision “raises important issues about theintegrity of Canadian citizenship.”

Brothers Alexander Vavilov, left, and Timothy in January 2014. Ottawa is appealing a court decisin that returned Canadian citizenship to Alexander.

(Family photo)

Brothers Alexander Vavilov, left, and Timothy in January 2014. Ottawa is appealing a court decisin that returned Canadian citizenship to Alexander.

OTTAWA — The federal government is appealing a court decision that handed Canadian citizenship back to the Toronto-born son of Russian spies after it was revoked by Ottawa.

In asking the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case, the government says the "absurd result" of the Federal Court of Appeal's decision "raises important issues about the integrity of Canadian citizenship" and should not be allowed to stand.

It likely will be several weeks before the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case.

In June, the appeal court ruled in Alexander Vavilov's favour — the latest turn in a long-running spy saga brimming with international intrigue.

Vavilov, 23, was born in 1994 as Alexander Philip Anthony Foley to Donald Heathfield and Tracey Ann Foley. The following year the family — including an older boy, Timothy — left Canada for France, where they spent four years before moving to the United States. 

One day in June 2010, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation turned up at the family's Boston-area home.

In all, 11 people — four of whom claimed to be Canadian — were indicted on charges of conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the SVR, the Russian Federation's successor to the ruthless KGB.

Heathfield and Foley admitted to being Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.

Bezrukov had cribbed the birth record of a baby with the surname Heathfield who died in Montreal at six weeks in early 1963, assuming his identity, the FBI said.

Bezrukov and Vavilova were among those sent back to Moscow — part of a swap for prisoners in Russia.

Alexander finished high school in Russia, studying in English.

He changed his surname to Vavilov on the advice of Canadian officials in a bid to obtain a Canadian passport. But he ran into trouble at the passport office and in August 2014 the citizenship registrar informed Vavilov the government no longer recognized him as a citizen of Canada.

The registrar said his parents were employees of a foreign government at the time of his birth, making him ineligible for citizenship.

The Federal Court upheld the decision two years ago.

But in June the appeal court set aside the ruling and quashed the registrar's decision. It said the provisions of the Citizenship Act the registrar cited shouldn't apply because Vavilov's parents did not have diplomatic privileges or immunities while in Canada.

In its application to the Supreme Court, the federal government says the registrar's original decision was "rational and defensible."

The appeal court's interpretation, on the other hand, means the legislative provisions in question deny citizenship to children of foreign intelligence agents posted to an embassy and benefiting from diplomatic privileges, while allowing citizenship for children of undercover intelligence agents engaged in surreptitious espionage.

It is absurd to interpret the legislation in a way that avoids visiting "the sins of the parents" upon Vavilov, whose parents were undercover Russian spies, but happily visits those same "sins" on the children of accredited diplomats, the government says.

"This is not a case about the 'sins' of Vavilov's parents, but rather their employment as Russian spies and their duty and service to Russia at the time of his birth in Canada."

Timothy Vavilov, 27, also went to court after being stripped of Canadian citizenship, and the ultimate outcome of his case is expected to hinge on the result of Alexander's proceedings.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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