[A slightly different version of this essay—entitled What it means to be a citizen—was also published on Postmedia Network Inc.’s Canada.com website on June 30, 2011.]
Each Canada Day, I’m reminded of the day in August when I arrived in Toronto for the first time. My mother and I had chosen Canada to be our new home. We could have chosen the United States, Australia or New Zealand, but decided on Canada because of the bright future it offered.
Upon my arrival, I was struck by a sense of “Canadian identity” and sought to adopt it in all important respects. People I met were not transplanted Frenchmen, nor were they British or Americans. They were Canadians, and I wanted to be one of them.
In those pre-Trudeau days, little was spoken of “official multiculturalism,” and many like myself didn’t see why Canada—or any nation for that matter—should aspire to be an extension of others’ cultures. Yes, there were those who treasured the institutions and traditions inherited primarily from France, England and Scotland, but Canadians before me had built something unique on those foundations, adding cultural enrichment and diversity.
More than a half-century has now passed, and millions of others have joined me, but I believe no less now in my adopted Canadian identity. True, it has evolved, but it continues to embody the core values I have cherished: belief in democracy, the rule of law, free speech, equal rights, tolerance, pluralism and peaceful coexistence with our neighbours, to name but a few. And although our national identity may continue to evolve, these are points on our moral compass that will guide us.
State-sponsored multiculturalism, however, should not be a means by which we nurture our identity and evolve as a people, for it divides more than it unites. The process of “Canadianization” properly begins with a set of sensible immigration policies that encourage individuals from around the world to join us as we fulfill our dreams. Newcomers need not belong to any specific religion, or be of any particular colour, race, ethnic origin or gender. They must, though, be like-minded—they must share our dreams and values. And, to understand us and participate fully in our society, they must become fluent in one of our two official languages within a reasonable timeframe, say, three years.
In some parts of the world from which we attract immigrants, religion and state are inexorably bound. To Canadians, however, separation of religion and state matters profoundly, for Canadian law is secular law and is made by representatives elected democratically under principles of universal suffrage. When there is a conflict between “the law” and someone’s religious law, it is “the law” that must take precedence. Newcomers must acknowledge this reality and abide by it.
Moreover, rather than encourage multiculturalism and the inevitable forming of separate cultural or religious groups that don’t interact with the mainstream, newcomers should be encouraged to maintain foreign cultures and religious practices only so long as doing so does not interfere with their, immigrants’, integration into our society. Our goal should be to live side-by-side, and not in cultural silos.
This brings me to the contradictory concept of dual citizenship, which seems to have become commonplace. Some holding this status will inevitable side with their non-Canadian homeland if they see it in a confrontation with Canada. We understand this when we hear the rhetoric of those who demonstrate in our streets over things happening in foreign lands. This is not desirable.
Furthermore, we know that some immigrants return to live full-time in their original homeland, once they have secured the convenience of Canadian citizenship—a sort of insurance policy to be cashed-in should an emergency arise. How can such people ever fulfill their obligations as citizens? I would like to see the practice of multiple passports discontinued. Citizenship is not something that can be shared.
Canada Day provides us all with the opportunity to wave our flag and celebrate being Canadian. For immigrants like me, it is also an opportunity to affirm our commitment to our adopted homeland and to assess how well we are meeting our obligations as citizens.