Opening a copy of the Montreal Gazette yesterday morning, I was drawn to an article in the Opinion section titled ‘Becoming Canadian’. It was a superb piece of writing by an American, or rather American-Canadian, writer by the name of Elizabeth Adams.
In the short piece, Ms Adams provides details of the Canadian citizenship ceremony she attended last week, at which she took the oath of citizenship along with 299 other individuals from 70 countries. She had first moved to Montreal in 2006 before becoming a permanent resident. Now, after satisfying the requirements for citizenship, she was becoming a part of the Canadian family.
The poignancy of the occasion clearly got to her, in the best possible way. “When the judge spoke of ‘freedom’ the word hit me with more force than ever before. Even without a personal history of oppression or persecution, I know now what it means to be an immigrant with certain hopes, but an uncertain future.”
And she could see this all across the room. There was an acknowledgment that here were 300 people from every walk of life and every social status, with shades of skin that ran the full gamut of all the ethnicities that cover the Earth.
There was one paragraph, however, that was just plain odd.
“When it came time to take the oath of citizenship, immigration guards suddenly filled the aisles. We were told to repeat the words in either French or English, but that our voices must be audible and our lips seen to be moving. The guards — mostly white men — meant business: they watched us like hawks and I saw one approach a Hasidic man and insist that he raise his head and speak aloud.”
I have no reason to doubt that Ms Adams is telling the correct version of events as they occurred during the ceremony last week, and so, taking this anecdote at face value I found myself asking — really?
Imagine the scene. Three hundred individuals are about to make a commitment under oath to uphold the rights and responsibilities that come with Canadian citizenship. If someone is not seen to be in lock-step with protocol, however, that person is forcibly coerced to act in a certain way. This is most un-Canadian, completely at odds with our past, and worrying for our future.
While many people may affirm an oath with gusto, others may take a more solemn approach. If a head is bowed, or eyesight is not fixed on a single thing, or someone is rendered literally speechless by an occasion — that is entirely normal for some people. Human beings react to emotions and significant life events in a variety of ways. If anything, that is what gives us all our humanity. It does not mean that the person reciting an oath more tangibly is therefore a more desirable citizen than one who is not.
In Canada, we have been taught to embrace variety, diversity and individual choice, and to respect other people always so long as they are not harming anybody else. This episode, assuming all the facts have been laid out, is worrying. If it’s the norm and not just an outlier, it is even more worrying. It is not a welcome to the family that we should be happy to continue.