On becoming Canadian

We arrive 10 minutes before the appointed 1:00 pm deadline on my invitation letter. It reads less as an invitation and more as a list of instructions, but represents the final step on my road to Canadian citizenship. The large waiting room is already packed, families in nice clothes, children laughing and running around, those who arrived too late to get a seat standing against the walls, checking their phones and leafing through their papers to make sure they brought everything they need. We join them, but soon I run to the washroom (a Canadianism I now feel compelled to use) to re-tuck my shirt. The 10-minute informational video about the citizenship ceremony I watched before leaving home suggested one should wear to the event ‘something special but also suitable’, such as what what you’d wear for ‘business or a special occasion’. I return to the waiting room, and the immigration officer informs us that guests may leave and return in an hour for the ceremony, or move into the ceremony room now to wait while citizenship candidates have their documents checked. My wife tries to get our toddler back to sleep in the stroller in the room (no such luck), while I wait for my number to be called.

I am called forward, number 17. I am directed to stand in line and then shortly after called into a small office where I surrender my permanent resident card, which I will no longer need, to a second immigration officer, who then stamps my certificate of permanent residence as no longer valid. Our conversation is brief and pleasant, though it means if I were for any reason to leave this nondescript grey one-story building set between a radiography center and a sports bar, I would perhaps potentially be voiding my citizenship application. We are, in fact, instructed to absolutely remain in the building. I wait again in line before being brought into the ceremony room, where citizenship candidates receive on their seats a booklet containing a copy of the oath of citizenship, the words to the national anthem, and information on an app you can download to receive free admission to museums and national parks across Canada.

My family sits in the back, with the other guests. There are perhaps 60 of us taking the citizenship oath in this room today, individuals such as myself, entire families, the woman next to me who works on her business administration homework until the moment the ceremony starts. On the low dais in the front are a podium, the national, provincial, and territorial flags, a table to the side where multiple tiny Canadian flags and a small cutout beaver and hockey player sit. On the video screen hanging from the ceiling in front plays a short film with iconic (or perhaps stereotypical is a better word) scenes of Canada: beavers and polar bears, a mountain biker riding through the Rockies, an east coast fishing village perched on a rocky shore, a combine harvesting wheat, the Toronto skyline, a couple canoeing down a northern river. The video ends and a new one begins, and the room quiets as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears and in English then French thanks everyone for ‘choosing’ Canada and welcomes everyone to the country. I feel briefly that I am joining a very exclusive gym, or perhaps setting up a new account with a bank that caters to a select clientele. I look around the room and wonder, how many of my fellow candidates chose Canada, chose Windsor, chose this moment to obtain citizenship, and how many had it thrust upon them among an extremely narrow set of options?

The clerk explains to us the ceremony, repeating much of the information that was in the video. Take the oath, wait for your name, proceed to the table and sign the form, receive your citizenship certificate, circle back and return to your seat, sing the anthem, photos. A judge from Toronto comes out, speaks to us about his own immigration story, reminds us it is both indigenous peoples’ history month and pride month, encourages us to not just note but participate in these, mentions the Raptors, and then administers the oath as we all stand and recite it, first in French (as best we can) and then in English. It is, we have been reminded, important to actually say the words to make the citizenship official, and the clerk and two immigration officers briskly walk around the room to ensure that everyone is indeed on board. I then sit and wait until my name is called, I go forward and shake the judge’s hand, sign and receive my certificate and a small Canadian flag that has attached to it a bilingual copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and walk around the back to take my seat again.

As I walk down the far side of the room past the assembled guests to my seat, an older man I noticed in the waiting room with a hat declaring he is “Straight Outta Canada” smiles and holds his fist up towards me. It takes me a split second to notice and with some hesitation, I decide to return him the fist bump he puts before me. I cannot see if he offers the same fist bump to other new citizens as they walk past him. If not, I do not know why he offered me the lone congratulatory fist bump. I later tell a friend that I recently got my Canadian citizenship, and she is surprised to find that I was not, until then, actually a Canadian. So I guess I have been passing as Canadian. I sometimes find it difficult to confront these moments, knowing that my path to citizenship was uncomplicated and straightforward. Pay the fee, fill out the forms, wait a few months, read the citizenship guide, take the exam. I am white, American-born, healthy, credentialed, a walking embodiment of the kind of social, economic, and physical mobility made possible by (formerly) well-funded public institutions, as well as deeply entrenched systems that work largely for people like me but not always for those who were in the room with me taking the oath. I say I find it difficult because it’s not easy to read the individual just by assumed group traits that might be visible but only skin-deep, just as it is not easy or accurate or right to read the group from the individual. I do not know who, from a passing encounter in an official state ceremony, is upper middle class with extensive money and social capital to fall back on, who came with just a few dollars to their name and a limited grasp of the language, who fled what kind of persecution in their country of origin, or who harbors pernicious but taken for granted ideas about who is a ‘real’ Canadian and who probably doesn’t really belong.

The judge speaks again, telling us all that our paths to citizenship are different, some easy, some difficult, but we all have the same rights and responsibilities now. He addresses the children in the room, telling them to look at the Discover Canada booklet on which the citizenship exam is based, to take some of the points from that booklet and let their friends at school know about them. Do not be surprised, he says, if some of these facts and ideas are new to them. It is not incumbent on those born in Canada to know these things to be Canadian, and to partake fully in the country’s social, political, and economic life. Such is the unevenness of responsibilities emerging from the distinction between birthright citizenship and naturalized citizenship.

After the judge’s final speech we are all to stand, sporting our tiny Canadian flags, and sing the national anthem as a group. The official bilingual version alternates every few lines between English and French. I have never learned French, and though I can recognize some words, my pronunciation is atrocious. I sing the English version, though I am opposed to anthems and cannot carry a tune. As a group, our harmony is fine in the English lines, though it sputters on the French, likely because of people like me, though for many in the room, neither French nor English is the first language. Indeed, the room reflects Windsor: multilingual, multiethnic, numerous origin points coming to this smallish place on the border with a much larger neighbor that barely notices its counterpart across the river. For many in Canada, or perhaps just in Ontario, Windsor is basically Ohio. It is peripheral, connected more to the US because of its intertwined relations with Detroit than perhaps any other place of considerable size in Canada. Weather maps of the Toronto area often stop at London, almost two hours from Windsor. American radio and tv dominate the airwaves here. The large Middle Eastern Arabic community in the region spans the border, with many having roots not just in Lebanon and Jordan and Syria but also Dearborn and Leamington. In doing some genealogical research two years ago, I found an ancestor of my own who emigrated from Ireland to the US in the 1790s, joined the Kentucky militia and marched north in the War of 1812, and helped rebuild Fort Malden in 1814-15 after the British abandoned and burned the fort. For his time served and travel he was paid $47.73, but he did not stay, returning to the hollers and ridges and hardscrabble farms of eastern Kentucky and living there into the 1850s. When my students have asked me how I myself came to this place, I tell them through the dull compulsion of economic force. Here I stay, and now I can vote.

It is time for pictures and a group cheer, then the ceremony is over. We are invited to wait in a line that quickly becomes very long so that we may, if we wish, take our picture with the presiding clerk and the judge who administered the oath. Our toddler is fighting an ear infection, so I have my wife take a ridiculous photo of me hugging a Canadian flag, Trump-style. It is silly and does not turn out well, so we do not try the pose again. We stop at Tim Horton’s on the drive home. At home I fill out my passport application, and set it aside to wait the two business days required before I can submit it. That evening, some friends come over and I recount the procedure of the citizenship ceremony, which none of them have ever seen and about which they know few details, giving it the aura of a secret initiation rite. They thoughtfully present me with some quintessentially Canadian gifts: a small jar of maple syrup, a bottle of Canadian rye whiskey, peameal bacon, an exquisite piece of middlebrow Blue Mountain pottery, a snow globe that says “EH?” on the inside. I have purchased an industrially produced sheet cake that reads “Welcome to Canada!” from the grocery store bakery for myself as part of the festivities and I bring it out from the kitchen, replete with red and white candles. All partly tongue in cheek, as I have lived and worked and built a life here over the last 14 years, so I hardly feel like a ‘new’ Canadian. One friend asks if I feel differently now. I do not. Perhaps I never will. I am not a nationalist in any way. I do not renounce the land of my birth, and I know my newly adoptive country was built on the same kind of theft and colonial violence common throughout this hemisphere. My politics and my ideals and my connections did not get forged overnight and they will not change so quickly either. So here I am, living in this small place on the border with two nationalities, and here I’ll probably stay.

One thought on “On becoming Canadian

  1. Welcome to Canada indeed. Windsor is unique in that you can go over to Detroit and step into a different world!

    Canada Day is coming up soon on July 1st, so Happy Canada day to you!


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