Canada’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday the son of a Russian spy couple who lived clandestine lives in Canada and the United States can keep his Canadian citizenship.
Alex Vavilov was born in Toronto, which would typically qualify him for Canadian citizenship except for one thing: His parents were part of a notorious Russian spy ring in North America that was broken up by the FBI in 2010.
The ruling means Vavilov can reside permanently in the country where his parents once lived clandestine lives as deeply embedded spies who were the models for the TV show “The Americans.”
“He’s very happy,” said Toronto-based lawyer Hadayt Nazami, who said his client plans to move to Canada from Russia.
“This is a rare case. Even if someone is born in Canada in the future who is a child of spies, we can’t go around using citizenship laws to punish children when they have done nothing wrong,”
The Canadian government argued he wasn’t entitled to citizenship and had appealed to the Supreme Court to annul the passport granted to him by a lower court. The top court upheld that ruling.
Vavilov’s supporters said a son shouldn’t pay for the sins of his parents, while critics contend his claim to be a Canadian by birth was based on a fraud since he and his parents lived under stolen identities in the Toronto area and later Massachusetts as they collected intelligence for Moscow.
Canada, like the U.S., grants citizenship to anyone born within its territory with limited exceptions, such as the children of diplomats. The government argued that Vavilov’s parents were employees or representatives of a foreign government and thus ineligible. But the attorney for Vavilov argued they were not official representatives and that all that matters in this case is their physical birthplace.
The parents came to Toronto in the 1980s and took the names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Ann Foley. They then gave birth to Timothy in 1990 and Alex in 1994 before moving to Paris in 1995 and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999.
In 2010, the FBI arrested a ring of sleeper agents for Russia that it had been following for years in the United States. All 10, including the now well-known Anna Chapman, pleaded guilty and were returned to Russia in a swap.
The Vacilov brothers maintain they didn’t know their parents were Russian let alone Russian spies. The family’s story became the inspiration for “The Americans.”
“This is ridiculous. Their parents are convicted spies, both of whom assumed identities of deceased legitimate Canadian citizens for the purposes of infiltrating the United States under cover,” said Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent who oversaw the arrests of the parents, Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, in 2010 along with eight other members of the spy ring around the U.S.
“To grant their sons legitimate status is a perversion of the law. Their parents were spies.”
DesLauriers said in 2010 that Tim may have found out about his parents’ secret life before they were arrested. But the brothers weren’t charged, and their lawyer said no evidence has ever surfaced suggesting they knew. The FBI believed the parents were building a false identity in Canada in an effort to eventually spy in the U.S.
Prosecutors said their father met in 2004 with an employee of the U.S. government to discuss nuclear weapons research.
Alex wanted to return to Canada for college but was denied. The government ruled that Canada would no longer recognize him as Canadian because his parents were “employees or representatives of a foreign government.” Alex appealed but lost at the Federal Court. But the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in 2017 the law applies only to foreign government employees who benefit from diplomatic immunities or privileges. Alex was given his citizenship back.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said the citizenship registrar’s decision was unreasonable. Although the registrar knew her interpretation of the provision was novel, she failed to provide a proper rationale, the court said.
“With this victory comes the bitter realization of all the suffering I have had to endure to see my status as an ordinary Canadian restored,” Vavilov said in a statement through his lawyer. “For the better part of a decade, I was forced into exile from Canada. I was forced onto the public stage unwillingly and deprived of my ability to pursue a normal life.”
“Having my citizenship finally respected brings me great joy,” he added. “I hope my long and litigious fight through the courts will at least bring some certainty and inspiration to other Canadians that may be defending their rights like I have had to.”
Although it involves the same central issue, Timothy’s case proceeded separately through the courts and was, therefore, not directly before the Supreme Court. However, in a decision last year, the Federal Court said the ruling on Alexander equally applied to Timothy, making him a citizen.
Alex Vavilov had been actively trying to find a job in Canada and has visited with his Canadian passport.
“With this decision both him and his brother will take steps to start establishing their lives where they wanted to,” Nazami said.