"Any day is a good day to become a Canadian citizen," the judge told the crowd of future Canadians, including my Serbian friend, "but this ceremony is occurring during a very special week." I turned to meet the eyes of my friend beside me, my friend's Canadian wife. She and I both thought he was referring to the contentious American election happening that very day, just south of the border. As it turns out, he was referring to Veteran's Week, celebrated around Remembrance Day on November 11.
It was weird to think of someone becoming Canadian. For most of my life I had taken it for granted, having been privileged with the honour the day I was born. But then I started travelling abroad after high school and it suddenly became important to identify myself as Canadian. Growing up near the border, I had acquired a bit of an American accent, and I was easily mistaken for an American. It was noticeable the difference in treatment I received when I clarified my nationality.
What does it mean to be Canadian? We've been asking ourselves that question for as far back as I can remember. And it's never been answered because there is no one thing that makes us "Canadian". Our history is complex; about 4% of Canadians are indigenous, which means that 96% have ancestors who arrived to these lands at some point since Jacques Cartier discovered Newfoundland in 1534. At some point since then, this group of mismatched people have morphed into something we now call "Canadian", and whatever that is, it's recognized as one of the best places to live and a country with one of the best reputations in the world.
How lucky was I to have been born in Vancouver, thanks to my ancestors who had made their way there from Scotland and Ireland? That I would be born with this privilege without at all having to earn it or even ask for it?
AS I SAT AND WATCHED MY FRIEND participate in his citizenship ceremony, I was proud that he had chosen Canada as his home.
Loonies, like citizenship, the judge said, have two sides. He held up the gold one dollar coin to the colourful crowd of adults and children sitting in quiet rows in front of him. One one side are our "marvellous" rights and freedoms, like our right to vote and the freedoms of mobility, speech, and peaceful assembly, all enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More than once, the judge emphasized that women and men are "equal partners in the building of Canada" and that gender equality is an important aspect of Canadian life.
But on the other side of those rights and freedoms we so enjoy, we have duties and responsibilities. We have the duty to vote, duty to serve on a jury, and a duty to support our communities by volunteering. As it was Veteran's Week, he emphasized our duty to defend Canada and our way of life—as we sing in our national anthem, "We stand on guard for thee." Our Canadian passports, which grant us access to the world—a huge privilege I don't take for granted—are given to us in trust by the government; we agree to use it with the understanding that we will be a good representative of Canada abroad, and our "actions will reflect well on that beautiful blue and gold" key to the world.
Recognizing their rights and duties, the candidates repeated the oath in both English and French: "I affirm I that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen."
And with that, the judge happily declared this group from 24 countries as "the 58th newest citizens in the whole country!" The now-Canadians waved their Canadian flags and shook hands with fellow citizens sitting on either side of them.
The judge acknowledged that the shaking of hands took place on Coast Salish territory, people who have lived here for millennia. The next person you meet, no matter where they're from, you do the same thing, the judge instructed. Shake hands, say your name and ask them theirs; share some of your story and listen to theirs—that's what Canada is all about.