Being “criminally inadmissible” to Canada unless “rehabilitated”

My anti-apartheid protest convictions nearly kept me out of Canada. Luckily, I had friends in high places. What though of those many people in our world, especially those seeking refuge from war and oppression, who do not?


We live in times when huge efforts go into building walls – real ones and electronic ones – to keep citizens “safe” in affluent Western societies. Terrorist incidents are few and far between in Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand (unlike in some other countries where many Muslims die daily from terrorist attacks and where hundreds of thousands of refugees live in appalling conditions). Yet surveillance and security policies pose ever more daunting challenges to the values of liberal democracy, and irritating frustrations for travellers whose purposes cannot possibly pose a threat to national security.

In the period from 15-23 March 2017 I was supposed to travel from London to Toronto to conduct research interviews with a number of prominent Canadians. The scheduled interviews were part of a research project funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand. I have travelled to Canada on several occasions since 2003 and did not imagine that I would have problems entering Canada this year.

New entry requirements, however, are in place. Visa-exempt foreign nationals who fly to, or transit through a Canadian airport, now need an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA). On the website one is informed that this is “The Government of Canada's official website to apply for an eTA. It only costs $7 CAD. Most eTA applications are approved within minutes of applying.”

My experience suggests that it is not wise to believe everything an immigration website promises.

I first applied for an eTA on 15 February. I truthfully mentioned that I had three summary offence convictions in 1981 and 1986. They arose from my involvement in anti-apartheid protests. I was asked to supply a court record and as I had not provided one the eTA was refused. I then obtained from New Zealand a copy of a court record and applied again on 23 February. The website indicated that the application was now under consideration and I would be notified of the outcome within 72 hours. Many lots of 72 hours elapsed with no notification.

As my 15 March departure date approached, our research team contacted a lawyer in Toronto. A message was sent to the office of Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. The reply from the Minister’s office on Saturday 11 March was that “Criminally inadmissible persons require either an Approval of Rehabilitation or a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) to enter or remain in Canada for any purpose and length of time.” A visit to the Canadian Visa Application Centre in London on 13 March ascertained that a TRP could only be obtained through the Ottawa website and that five business days were required. That website informed me “you may still be allowed to come to Canada, if you convince an immigration officer that you meet the legal terms to be deemed rehabilitated, or applied for rehabilitation and were approved.” At that point the travel arrangements were cancelled and the interviews postponed.

Meanwhile I had received strong support from senior leadership at the University of Auckland who contacted Canadian consular officials in Sydney. I filled out an IMM1444E form. This required me to identify every address that I had lived at since I turned 18 and every employer, and why I should be “rehabilitated.” As to question #18 on rehabilitation I wrote: “I am in fact proud of my anti-apartheid campaigning and I do not think that I am in need of 'rehabilitation' in order to enter Canada. Indeed, the Canadian Government at that time took a much stronger anti-apartheid position than the New Zealand Government.”

University pressure (including contacts with MFAT) finally bore fruit and an eTA arrived. The official reason given for granting the eTA in the end was not that I was “deemed rehabilitated” but that my convictions were “clean slated” by the Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act 2004. This is curious because the Canadian Consent to Disclosure of Information form sought my “full criminal record.” It explicitly noted the clean slate exceptions in section 14(3) of the New Zealand Act when information is sought by immigration authorities of foreign countries. Ironically as it now appears, I made a submission on the Clean Slate Bill when it was being promoted by the Green Party MP Nándor Tánczos in which I stated that I was proud of my convictions and did not want them ‘clean slated’!

I had friends in high places and I now have an eTA valid to 13 March 2022. We are now in the process of confirming a new schedule of research interviews in Canada in May.

What though of those many people in our world, especially those seeking refuge from war and oppression, who have no friends in high places?