David Wright had been collecting money for another monthly community breakfast at the United Communities Fire Hall when his heart gave out.
The 76-year-old was among a handful of locals that founded the volunteer fire department in Cherry Hill, Lunenburg County, back in 1973, and it remained a point of pride in his life, said his wife Kat.
He was proud that the rural hall bordering Highway 331 continued to hold meals and dances, carrying on its purpose of uniting the communities it serves: Cherry Hill, Broad Cove and Voglers Cove.
David died of a heart attack in the Wrights’ Voglers Cove home on June 26, while he and his wife were fighting deportation
The couple, both 76 years of age, had endured a seven-year battle with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, exhausting all but one option of persuading the federal government for permission to live out the rest of their lives in Voglers Cove.
When David died the couple was still waiting on their final hope for permanent residency — a 300-page humanitarian application submitted to the federal immigration department in December 2017.
The waiting took its toll on David, who had recently beaten cancer and was dealing with heart issues.
“This difficulty of not knowing our status affected his heart,” said Kat, while trying to hold back tears during a recent telephone conversation. “He had a very good day on the last day of his life but essentially he was in pain.
“It still feels like a 10,000-pound weight hanging over (my) head. Dave and I were together for 55 years. We were a unit. It’s the not knowing that’s so hard. I have no idea when I will know.”
Halifax immigration lawyer Lee Cohen has represented the couple since Day 1. He’s taken David’s death particularly hard. Cohen’s hoping that Kat doesn’t meet the same fate as her husband: dying before the federal government decides on her application.
It’s been more than a year and a half since Cohen filed the humanitarian application asking for the government to grant them permanent residency on humanitarian/compassion grounds.
The couple have fallen victim to what he calls a bureaucratic nightmare that Cohen suggests is partly a consequence of budget cuts to the immigration department over the years. Fewer and fewer staff are dealing with an increasing backlog in immigration applications, said Cohen, who still does not know the status of the Wrights’ application.
“I have no doubt that the stress of waiting and the great distress of the uncertainty, especially at their age played a role in David’s health and it’s playing a role in Kat’s as well,” said Cohen.
“In this process David and Kat have been genuine, candid and cordial. They have been patient waiting for the Canadian immigration system to do what it needs to do and in the process David has died. I do not want to lose Kat before there’s a positive decision here.
“My goal here is to get Kat landed in Canada as a permanent resident. I have to do that despite, and because of, all the events that go on her life. The loss of David is a huge one for her.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada faces a backlog of 15,082 humanitarian applications, according to data provided by the department. Department spokeswoman Nancy Caron said she couldn’t comment on the Wrights’ case but said that most humanitarian and compassionate permanent resident applications are processed within 31 months.
That’s not good enough, said Cohen.
“Immigration, despite the politics, the social issues and the bureaucratic issues around it, is all about people. There are real, live breathing, caring, feeling, worried human beings at the front-end of all these applications. Those people are impacted dramatically by how the process operates and the outcome of the process.”
The U.S.-born couple had found a home in Voglers Cove soon after they arrived to the picturesque South Shore community in 1972 with today’s equivalence of permanent residency.
Over a five-year period the couple set down roots. David realized his dream of becoming a lobster fisherman, thanks to some friendly Voglers Cove fishermen who took the newcomer on and showed him the ropes. Meanwhile, Kat had found employment at the community fish plant and at local newspapers but they couldn’t make ends meet.
Despite eventually acquiring a 31-foot vessel and traps of his own, he endured three fruitless seasons and ultimately went broke. The couple was forced to move back to the U.S. where David’s father had found him a job.
The Wrights kept in touch with a wide circle of friends in the community and held on to their dream of moving back for good. They worked and saved over the years while visiting when they could.
Their ordeal started back in January, 2012, when they packed up their belonging and made the move to Voglers Cove. A U.S. border official in Woodstock, N.B., noticed the couple’s permanent residency status ran out. They’ve been fighting deportation and a removal order ever since.
Maintaining their permanent residency required them to split their time living in Canada. For every five years, they had to live 730 days in the country. Their attempts to find work on the South Shore and other parts of the country proved fruitless and they didn’t spend the required days in Canada.
In the midst of so much uncertainty the couple managed to pick up where they left off. Kat founded the community’s Read and Share Corner, a free library at the Voglers Cove Community Hall that’s currently playing host to summertime reading and writing workshops with well-known Nova Scotia authors. She spearheaded a book donation drive that offers a wide selection of books for all ages.
The community has rallied behind the Wrights throughout their ordeal. About 50 Voglers Cove residents made the 128-kilometre trip to Halifax to support them at their immigration appeal hearing in 2014. They won their case for permanent residency on humanitarian grounds before the federal government appealed and had the decision reversed.
But members of the Immigration Appeal Division that heard the case in 2014 were convinced that the Wrights’ rightful home was in Voglers Cove.
“The tribunal is of the opinion that both appellants have demonstrated that they were well integrated in the Voglers Cove community from 1972 to 1977, that they kept in touch with that community despite their long absence from Canada and that today they have reestablished themselves as active members of the Voglers Cove community,” read part of the decision.
“It is not that their life is in danger or at risk if they were to live in the USA but the simple fact of moving would be traumatic at an age where life can certainly not be taken for granted.”
Cohen believes the Wrights ought to be considered excellent candidates for their commitment to rural Nova Scotia, which is contending with a dramatic population decline. Cohen encourages people to write letters of support for the Wrights and send them to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The couple has also garnered letters of support from local municipalities, including Lunenburg, Shelburne and Bridgewater. Each wrote letters to the federal government last year asking for their application to be approved.
Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said the couple represented exactly “what we want in our communities.”
Like Cohen, he’s concerned with the backlog of immigration applicants.
“We want people to be involved and love their community and what we’re saying is that we need to grow our province and we have a whole bunch of tools to grow our province but the most important tool arguably or not arguably is to have enough people to actually approve these applications,” said Mitchell.
Liberal South Shore-St. Margarets MP Bernadette Jordan could not be reached for comment.
Kat continues to wait. The United Communities Fire Department is planning to hold a memorial for David in the fall.
“He was a founding member of that fire department,” said Kat. “He was proud of them and they were proud of him. People are remembering him as gentle, kind and very funny. He was a good man.”