Record (Kitchener-Waterloo) | Jul. 23, 2004 | Frank Etherington

Telegdi declines plum post to focus on citizenship issue

Kitchener-Waterloo MP Andrew Telegdi has declined an appointment as parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Paul Martin because he wants to resolve an ongoing citizenship dispute.

The dispute about whether courts or government should have the power to revoke citizenship affects the case of Helmut Oberlander, 80, a retired Waterloo developer.

Oberlander is facing deportation over his role as an interpreter with a Nazi killing unit that murdered more than 23,000 civilians, mostly Jews, during the Second World War. He argues he was treated unfairly when the federal cabinet stripped him of his citizenship in July 2001. Now, in a minority government and a new political climate where free votes will be allowed, Telegdi is convinced he can win a resolution of the citizenship issue.

The MP said the dual secretary position he declined would be in the areas of aboriginal affairs and science and technology and would answer directly to the prime minister.

Telegdi received a call from Martin after he turned down the position.

"The prime minister said he hoped to see a resolution to the citizenship issue . . . sooner rather than later," the MP said. "He said he very much wants me in the position (and) would hold (it) open until then."

In Ottawa yesterday, Karl Littler, a Martin adviser and Liberal campaign chairman in Ontario, confirmed the prime minister agreed to keep the position open because he believes Telegdi would be a good fit. He said Martin also wants a speedy resolution to the citizenship question.

Littler said Telegdi would answer directly to Martin because the prime minister said during the election campaign he would take a personal interest in aboriginal issues as well as science and technology.

Telegdi shares Martin's interest in those subjects.

"I would love to work in both areas . . . but I'm in a dilemma . . . there's a chance this citizenship question can be resolved that's been around my neck since 1998 . . . the opportunity is too good to miss," he said.

Telegdi said he doesn't see his decision as a pressure tactic to get his way on the citizenship issue.

He said that under the Martin government, there will be more opportunities for free votes in the House on issues such as citizenship that are not considered votes of confidence which would threaten the government.

Telegdi said that in light of two court decisions favouring Oberlander, the government has to find some resolution to the issue.

In May 2000, Telegdi resigned his position as parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan after losing a battle with his own Liberal government over the citizenship question.

The MP believes citizenship disputes should be decided by the courts, which would allow for appeals, and not by politicians. He quit after amendments he lobbied for were defeated 144-80 in the Commons during second reading of a new Citizenship Act.

At the time, the MP said he was encouraged six other Liberal backbenchers broke party ranks to vote against the government's legislation and vowed to continue his campaign against what he says is an unjust system that threatened to strip a person's citizenship.

Citing his own experience as an immigrant from Hungary who fled with his family after the Soviet Union invaded in 1956, Telegdi argued anything less than full appeal through the courts devalues the citizenship he prizes.

Federal officials have been trying to deport Oberlander for failing to disclose his service with the Nazi squad when he emigrated from Germany in 1954.

But earlier this summer, after more than nine years of legal arguments about his past, a decision by the Federal Court of Appeal this week restored Oberlander's citizenship.

Government officials are reviewing the case to decide if they will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Meanwhile, in January, Justice Robert Reilly of the Superior Court of Justice in Kitchener questioned Oberlander's deportation by raising constitutional concerns about fairness.

Reilly agreed the secretive cabinet process may have violated principles of fundamental justice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government is appealing Reilly's ruling.

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