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Canadians respond light-heartedly to U.S. Cuba law

They say they are speaking for 3-million Canadians whose Loyalist ancestors fled a revolutionary United States more than 200 years ago and who now want their family property back.

John Godfrey, a Liberal member of Parliament from Toronto, lays claim to an ancestral home in Carter's Grove, Va. Peter Milliken, a Liberal member from Kingston, Ontario, has forebears who owned land in New York's Mohawk Valley.

Standing at Old Fort York, whose guns defended Toronto in the War of 1812 but were stilled by American forces who burned the fort in 1813, they say they want to get even with the United States for what it is doing to Canadians who do business with Cuba.

The two lawmakers announced on Wednesday that in the fall they will introduce a bill to do the same thing to recover property confiscated from Loyalists to the British crown as the Helms-Burton Law, passed this year, does to enable Americans to recover assets seized after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

"Our guns are old, but they are big," said Godfrey. (In 1814, in retaliation for the devastation at Fort York, the British burned Washington.)

Milliken said, "The idea is to point out that if you're going to use domestic law to interfere with business relations with foreign states, other people can do the same thing."

He said one constituent told him he had deeds for all of downtown Philadelphia. "If the bill passes," Milliken said with a grin, "he'll be a millionaire."

Grinning is what the two lawmakers did a lot of. The bill will go in as one of the thousands of private member's bills that are introduced annually but rarely pass into law. Its sponsors' intention, they said, is to parody Helms-Burton with mirror-image provisions and to highlight what the Canadians insist is the absurdity of the American law.

Thus, under the bill, Canadians would be able to sue the current American owners of their Loyalist ancestors' property in Canadian courts. And corporate officers of American companies who engage in "trafficking" in confiscated Loyalist properties would be barred from entering Canada.

But not everyone is laughing at the lawmakers' initiative.

Michael Bliss, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, said: "The whole point is kind of stupid because the United Empire Loyalists were compensated for their confiscated property."

In 1802, the United States and Britain signed a treaty settling all Loyalist claims. The United States paid a lump sum of 600,000 pounds, or $3 million. That was a lot of money in those days, nearly half the $7.9 million federal budget.

"I see all this as high silliness and grandstanding," said Bliss. "Helms-Burton is a serious issue and should be treated seriously."