TORONTO -- Canada's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that he son of a Russian spy couple who lived clandestine lives in Canada and the United States can keep his Canadian citizenship.
Alexander Vavilov was born in Toronto, which would typically qualify him for Canadian citizenship. But authorities had ruled that Vavilov didn't qualify because his parents were part of a notorious Russian spy ring in North America that was broken up by the FBI in 2010.
The high court rejected that finding, meaning 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."
“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.”
Vavilov's Toronto-based lawyer Hadayt Nazami, said his client plans to move back 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 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. Vavilov's lawyer argued that 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 two sons — Timothy in 1990 and Alexander 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 family's story became the inspiration for “The Americans.”
An FBI agent who oversaw the arrest of the couple, Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, and the other eight sleeper agents criticized the high court's decision.
“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. “To grant their sons legitimate status is a perversion of the law. Their parents were spies.”
Prosecutors said the father met in 2004 with an employee of the U.S. government to discuss nuclear weapons research.
DesLauriers said in 2010 that Timothy Vavilov may have found out about his parents' secret life before they were arrested. But the brothers weren't charged.
Their lawyer said no evidence had ever surfaced suggesting the sons knew their parents were Russians or were spies.
Alexander Vavilov wanted to return to Canada for university but was denied. The government ruled Canada would no longer recognize him as Canadian because his parents were "employees or representatives of a foreign government."
After losing in a lower court, Vavilov won support from the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled in 2017 that the law applies only to foreign government employees who benefit from diplomatic immunities or privileges. Vavilov 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.
Although it involves the same central issue, Timothy Vavilov's case proceeded separately through the courts and was not directly before the Supreme Court. However, in a decision last year, the Federal Court of Appeal said its 2017 ruling on Alexander Vavilov equally applied to his brother, making him a citizen.