Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


On Becoming a Canadian

Canadian citizenship
“Have fun pledging to the Queen,” one coworker joked on my way out.

“And all her heirs and successors,” I said, hopping on one leg to attach a reflective ankle strap. “That’s the important part!”

A deep autumn downpour had passed through the night before, leaving the ground sodden beneath startling blue skies. I pedaled down Heather Street, toward the False Creek skyline. The glass of Vancouver shimmered in pale November sunlight. Flowing grey clouds obscured the North Shore mountains, like a tidal cascade, and the air still smelled of rain. Rain, that defining scent of Vancouver, clean and nearly odourless.

Inside the CIC hall, a cacaphony of voices, a blur of skin tones. Guests are seated first, then those taking the oath. It is the same room where I took the test a few months earlier, showing I could identify Atlantic provinces and the basic principles of constitutional monarchy. We queue for registration, a reliably organized show of our aspired citizenship. As we take our seats I notice a window-cleaner starting at the exterior right, dangling in front of BC Place.

A young clerk in black court gown appears, nervously explaining the ceremony protocol from behind a lectern. We are to stand when necessary, listen attentively, and recite in English or French. “Please inform Judge Kains that we are ready to begin the ceremony!” she cries out. Even to this moment, the ceremony remains mysterious to me. The word carries a shamanic quality. The ceremony.

The judge bears confidence, candour, and splendid golden hair. She asks us to be seated, welcoming us from the central podium. She begins speaking to us directly, first to congratulate us on joining Canadian history, then, surprisingly, about the military. “On November 11th we will mark Remembrance Day, in memory of all those who have died in service of Canada.” She brings our attention to the the deaths of Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo, and begins to list the many wars in which Canadian Forces have participated. Our military is a prerequisite of peace, she explains. I am vaguely disquieted. The tethered window-washer has completed another three panes, seemingly oblivious to the assembly. “I ask that you stand,” — we do — “and observe a moment of silence for all those who have sacrificed for the peace we enjoy.” Peace. I hear her speak of ordered tranquility through strength, not of blandly amorphous freedom, a word Americans enjoy repeating. Enemies of Canada are enemies of peace; enemies of the United States are enemies of freedom. I begin to hear Toby Keith sing, ’cause freedom don’t come free.

Free? “They are not free,” she continues. The subject has changed. “Taxpayers must fund them. What better expression of our desire for you to belong than for us to provide language classes at no cost? We want you to learn English or French so you can participate most fully in Canadian society.” The nationalism seems to thin, like a lifting fog. She dives into themes of inclusiveness and personal responsibility that have repeatedly struck me through this process, so unfamiliar to partisan America.

“I hear many people say they love the benefits of Canada. It is so beautiful here, they say. The free education, the free health care. Make no mistake — these are not free. If you believe they are free, they will not be there for those who come after you. They were built through hard work, dedication, and compromise. You must do your part to maintain them for future generations.” ‘Cause freedom don’t come free. I try to imagine Toby singing about nationalized health care.

We are implored to know people of different backgrounds and faiths. “Ask questions. What do they do in a mosque? What do they do in a temple? The first thing you will find is that they are not trying to convert you.” Welcome laughter through the room. Do not keep company only with those like you. “Because that person you think is so different is who makes the food you buy at the store, the person who services the airplane you are about to fly, or the person who works in your child’s school. And the first thing any Canadian wants to ask the person at an emergency room,” she takes a strident tone, “the only thing — regardless of how they dress or what they believe, is: can you help me?” The departure from American patriotism reaches its zenith: “we need each other.” The window-wiper is finished.

A pause. “Who complained about the rain this morning?” There had been a lot. “More than a few of you, I would guess! We always complain about the rain. It’s November! This summer I even heard people complaining that we weren’t getting enough!” Everyone laughed at the truth of it.

“I think people complain about rain in Vancouver because we have so little to actually complain about. Remember that the next time you are in the elevator, or in the store, and hear people complain about the weather.” People in sunny states sometimes ask how I tolerate the rain and cold in Vancouver. Maybe I should reply that it’s because I have little else to worry about here.

So I pledged to Elizabeth II, and her heirs. Yes, it was strange. Judge Kains coated the bitter pill. “She’s 88 and still works. She attends four different engagements a day, meaning she always does her homework. She’s never late and never calls in sick. That’s who you’re pledging to!” A matronly portrait beamed down from the wall across her new Canadian subjects.

The mythical character of the Queen is telling. Few realize that personal ethics feature so prominently in Canadian society, for they are seldom made explicit. The very short list of obligations of citizenship includes responsibility for yourself and your family, alongside obeying the law and respecting the rights of others. As an American, I am accustomed to a narrative of right-wing demands for self-sufficiency, inherently at odds with public services. In Canada, the two are incongruously married. Canadians support ourselves and also support each other. Americans will think I’ve bought into seductive propaganda. Canadians may instead insist I am ignorant of the incompleteness of this ideal.

My partner hugged me after I received my certificate. “Welcome home.” It feels that way to me now. I feel I am somewhere I can aspire to be a full person. I feel I am planted in the right soil. DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM, states the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada. “They desire a better country.”


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Sandy Envelope


The first time I sent in my application, it was returned on account of a forgotten signature. I recall opening the sand-coloured envelope in excitement, only to have my battered documents spill out. They had traveled across the continent and back, returning with a sheet of paper that advised me of my omission. Moreover, this sheet of paper warned, a second mistake could result in forfeiture of the fee and untold consequences.

I checked and double-checked. I sent it back to Nova Scotia from the same dumpy gift card store with Canada Post in the back. I requested delivery confirmation.

And then I waited. And waited. Had I done something wrong again? Was I to be denied consideration on account of my inability to complete well-described forms? Surely the competence to follow instructions from the Government of Canada numbers among responsibilities in those alluded “rights and responsibilities”.

I never tested the generosity of the state in this scenario. Today I received another sandy envelope, which instead contained a glossy booklet. It mostly describes how Canadians are intended to govern themselves. Practically, this is the meaning of citizenship in this country: the right to vote.

And what now? “Please wait.” I feel more Canadian already.