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Facing Deportation: The Curious Cases of Rebecca Barnett and Rebecca Grizzle

In the late summer of 2012, I visited Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to conduct archival research for the historical context component of our current temporary exhibition Position As Desired / Exploring African Canadian Identity. (Editor's Note: The exhibition was featured from January 22 to March 30, 2013) I came across an old Immigration Branch record pertaining to an African Canadian woman named Rebecca Barnett. The microfilmed record was titled: “Rebecca Barnett – undesirable (insane) (Black).” Curious, and a bit taken aback, I proceeded to explore the content further. I subsequently came across a Department of Justice record titled “Deportation of Rebecca Grizzle (coloured), public charge in Toronto General Hospital.”

In the former, I found a story that spanned immigration, citizenship and expatriation legislation, and heavily underlined the racial/ethnic and gender norms of the period spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Including the latter case, I began to wonder what role did identities – in this instance: African Canadian, women, mentally ill, public charge – play in their cases? With Rebecca Barnett, Canadian and American immigration authorities could not agree on her citizenship. As for Rebecca Grizzle, Canadian immigration officials were unsure of the legality of deporting a public charge who was to be financially supported by a private organization.

Before delving into their specific cases, we must explore what place and what rights did women hold in law during both Rebeccas’ lives. The British North America (BNA) Act created the Dominion of Canada in 1867. This legislation used “he” and “persons” to refer to more than one individual. Women were left out. Under the law, they were not seen as persons. A British court ruling in 1876 dictated that Canadian women were “…persons in matters of pain and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”[1] Women such as Rebecca Barnett and Rebecca Grizzle were not considered equal to men under the law.

Rebecca Barnett

Barnett was born in Chippewa, Ontario and spent close to twenty years there before heading to the United States. In 1884, she married Alfred S. Barnett from Omaha, Nebraska. Alfred later served as the head porter on the Pullman Railway dining car between Chicago, Illinois and Bay City, Michigan. The couple lived throughout the United States – never staying too long in one place.

When Rebecca became afflicted with a mental illness, Alfred sent her back to Canada for treatment. In 1886, Rebecca Barnett was admitted into the Asylum for the Insane in Hamilton, Ontario. Upon his wife’s admission, Alfred later obtained a divorce and remarried. Approximately two decades later, Rebecca remained a resident of the Asylum. Unbeknownst to Rebecca, her hometown of Chippewa contacted provincial authorities to dispute why they continued to be charged for her care.

In a letter, dated 6 November 1907, from S.A. Armstrong, Ontario Inspector of Asylums, Prisons, and Public Charities to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration in Ottawa, Barnett’s residency was outlined as the following:

When the patient became mentally affected, her husband sent her back to Canada. The domicile of the wife follows that of the husband, and as the wife was never competent to elect a change of domicile…her domicile is that of the United States. Although the patient has been in our asylums for a long time the question of her citizenship has only been brought to notice lately through the Municipality, (Chippewa) taking exception to being charged for her maintenance.[2]

The Ontario Inspector wondered whether Barnett’s case should be referred to the United States Department of Immigration in Washington. Nine days later, Wallace, the Acting U.S. Commissioner of Immigration in Montreal informed Canadian immigration authorities that if Rebecca Barnett continued to reside in her country of birth, she “…could hardly be called a citizen of the United States” even with her American citizenship – conferred on her through her marriage to Alfred Barnett.[3]

American immigration authorities referred to “the uniform practice in the United States to hold that a woman partakes of the status of her husband so far as citizenship is concerned.” Regardless of Rebecca’s status as a Canadian citizen by birth, her marriage to Alfred Barnett subsumed her birthright for an American citizenship. Wallace pointed out to his Canadian counterparts that while Rebecca Barnett’s case was “…certainly somewhat novel and peculiar,” she was not a citizen of Canada due to her marriage. In assuming that immigration legislation was not intended to be retroactive, the Immigration Act of 1906 would not apply to Barnett who returned to Canada prior to the introduction of the Act, and therefore could not be included within its provisions.[4]

However, American immigration authorities indicated that with the recent passage of the Expatriation Act on 2 March 1907, a naturalized citizen who now resided for a period of two years in their country of origin would lose their American citizenship.[5] Rebecca Barnett spent over two decades in residence at the Hamilton Asylum prior to the passage of the Expropriation Act. In the eyes of American officials, Barnett was no longer considered an American citizen.

Disappointed with the American interpretation of the Barnett case, Ontario Inspector S.A. Armstrong informed Superintendent of Immigration in Ottawa, W.D. Scott, that the American response was “…entirely contrary to decided cases and to the rules of private international law generally.”[6] Armstrong focused his letter to Scott on two points: nationality and domicile. In attempting to ascertain whether Rebecca Barnett belonged to the province of Ontario or the United States, Armstrong argued that “…she should be maintained by the United States” because of her marriage to an American citizen. At the time, international law dictated that a woman acquired the nationality of her husband. Armstrong believed that the couple’s divorce in 1886 should not be factored into any decision on Rebecca’s citizenship.[7]

In the case of domicile, the Ontario Inspector argued that since Alfred Barnett’s residence at the time of his marriage to Rebecca Barnett was in the United States, the wife’s domicile remained in the United States even after she was brought back to Canada for treatment. According to Armstrong, a voluntary change of domicile would have to occur for Rebecca Barnett’s status to change. Given her long term stay in Hamilton’s Asylum, she may have been unable to understand and/or request such a change. Since Alfred Barnett returned home to the United States, Armstrong argued that Rebecca’s residency status remained with him.[8]

Although American immigration authorities believed that Rebecca had lost her American nationality, Canadian legislation did not automatically reinstate her citizenship. As a result, she remained a statutory alien until either country deemed her as a citizen.

Believing he could no longer deal with the case, W.D. Scott sought a judicial interpretation from W. Stuart Edwards, Acting Deputy Minister of Justice in Ottawa. Edwards replied that it was his belief that:

…any British subject is subject to loss of domicile for the purposes of the Act under the provisions of said section. If a native-born Canadian loses his domicile under said section, he does not cease to be a Canadian citizen, but I am of [the] opinion that if a woman being an alien becomes a British subject by virtue of her marriage to a Canadian-born citizen, and loses her domicile under said section whether before or after the termination of the marital relation, she ceases to be a Canadian citizen…[9]

The Acting Deputy Minister of Justice agreed with the Ontario Inspector that while Rebecca Barnett was born in Canada and remained a mentally ill patient of the Hamilton Asylum, she was no longer a Canadian citizen.

Rebecca Grizzle

In 1923, a Canadian Immigration Branch agent in Toronto sought the deportation of Rebecca Grizzle, an African Canadian woman hospitalized at the city’s general hospital.

Although not much is known about her, Rebecca was hospitalized for a period of two weeks. For her stay in the hospital, Rebecca was deemed a public charge for not paying her medical bill, and could be deported by federal officials. On 18 August 1923, the Deputy Minister of Immigration and Colonization wrote to W. Stuart Edwards, Assistant Deputy Minister of Justice to inform him that an unknown organization “interested in the welfare of coloured people now desires to pay the hospital expenses with a view to setting aside the decision for deportation which was rendered by our Officer.”[10] Immigration officials wondered whether they could deport Rebecca Grizzle for being a public charge even if an organization paid her hospital expenses. Four days later, E.L. Newcombe, Deputy Minister of Justice responded by indicating that an order to deport Rebecca as a public charge “could be legally executed if an organization interested in this party should pay her hospital expenses. I am of [the] opinion that such a step would not affect the right established to deport within the authority [of the law]…”[11]

With the assistance of the private organization, Rebecca Grizzle could have paid her medical expenses. Yet, Canadian officials sought no reason that prevented them from deporting her. What ultimately occurred to Grizzle and the private organization interested in her care is unknown. More research is required to find out what happened to her.

 


It would take another two decades before five women took a Supreme Court of Canada decision on Edwards vs. Canada – commonly referred to as the “Persons Case” – to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Great Britain, which at the time served as the highest court of appeal for all Commonwealth countries. On 18 October 1929, Canadian women were declared as persons under the law.

The archival records that I briefly touched on are intriguing, but do not conclude with any information on what happened to either Rebecca Barnett or Rebecca Grizzle. Was Barnett sent to the United States – the home of her now ex-husband Alfred – or did she remain in Canada as a patient of the Hamilton Asylum? Did the unknown organization interested in helping Grizzle prevent her deportation as a public charge? Did the organization pay for her stay at Toronto General Hospital? More research is required to determine what ultimately happened to both Rebeccas.

In the case of Rebecca Barnett, Canada and the United States refused to grant her citizenship, forcing her to become a statutory alien. Although she was born and raised in Canada and ultimately returned to reside in her country of birth for several decades, under the law she was no longer considered a Canadian. I cannot help but wonder, what role did her identity as an African Canadian woman with a mental illness play? The archival records that I consulted did not answer these questions, but did highlight them.


  1. Monique Benoit, “No. 119 Are Women Persons? The “Persons” Case,” Accessed: 15 January 2013, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/publications/archivist-magazine/015002-2100-e.html#a4.
  2. Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Immigration Branch (hereafter IB), RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from S.A. Armstrong, Ontario Inspector of Asylums, Prisons, and Public Charities to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, 6 November 1907, 2.
  3. LAC, IB, RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from Wallace, Acting U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, Montreal to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, 12 November 1907, 2.
  4. LAC, IB, RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from Wallace, Acting U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, Montreal to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, 15 November 1907, 2.
  5. LAC, IB, RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from F.H. Larned, Acting U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration to Acting U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, Montreal, 21 November 1907.
  6. LAC, IB, RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from S.A. Armstrong, Ontario Inspector of Asylums, Prisons, and Public Charities to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, 4 February 1908.
  7. Ibid. 2.
  8. Ibid. 4-5.
  9. LAC, IB, RG 76, volume 477, file 737470 “Rebecca Barnett, Undesirable (Insane) (Black),” reel C-10412, letter from W. Stuart Edwards, Acting Deputy Minister of Justice to Superintendent of Immigration, Ottawa, 31 January 1916.
  10. LAC, Department of Justice (hereafter DJ), RG 13, volume 2178, file 1923-1443 “Deportation of Rebecca Grizzle (Coloured) Public Charge in Toronto General Hospital,” reel C-10412, letter from Assistant Deputy Minister of Immigration and Colonization to W. Stuart Edwards, Acting Deputy Minister of Justice, Ottawa, 18 August 1923.
  11. LAC, DJ, RG 13, volume 2178, file 1923-1443 “Deportation of Rebecca Grizzle (Coloured) Public Charge in Toronto General Hospital,” reel C-10412, letter from E.L. Newcombe, Deputy Minister of Justice to Assistant Deputy Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, 22 August 1923.