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Our New Citizens

Indonesian-born Kreato Adi Wijaya, 9, and his sister Majoli, 7, are among those taking the oath at a Toronto ceremony.

On a cold, dull April afternoon in Toronto, people begin gathering in the basement of a library in Parkdale, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto. They range in age from toddlers to advanced middle age. They hail from 30 different nations, including Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burundi, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, Hungary, India, Iraq, Israel and Uzbekistan.

No matter where they are from, they are all here for the same reason. They are about to become Canadians.

At the front of the room is a portable podium flanked on either side by a gold-fringed Canadian flag and portrait of the Queen. The 100 people who are about to become citizens take their seats facing the podium. At 1 p.m. sharp, everyone stands as a file of dignitaries enters the room. Heading the line is Constable Naitza Kikyo Aida of the RCMP in full dress scarlets followed by Citizenship Judge Rita Cox in black robes. Behind them are Toronto town crier Tom Jones and his wife Betty in 18th-century costume, and ending the procession are special guest speakers Mohamed Tabit and Graham Rockliffe.

Almost all the dignitaries have something special in common. At some point in their lives, they too stood on the opposite side of the room as immigrants. When it is their turn to speak, Judge Cox, Crier Jones, Tabit and Rockliffe each draw on this singular life experience. What does it mean to become a Canadian citizen?

Tabit came to Canada from Pakistan 17 years ago. Today, as chair of the Parkdale Intercultural Association, he urges the audience to “…become active Canadians. As Canadian citizens, voting is not a privilege, but your duty. As Canadians, you are eligible to even run for political office. One of you might be prime minister of Canada some day.”

Rockliffe, director of the Citizenship and Immigration Centre in Toronto, came to Canada as a teen from England. In his speech, he urges the audience to try two things. “One, travel and see Canada. Only when you meet people from other parts of this country will you understand how wonderful this country is.”

Rockliffe’s second suggestion drew smiles from the audience. “Two, learn to skate or play hockey. It is part of our winter heritage. Canadians skate and play hockey.”

The room falls silent when Judge Cox rises to conclude the ceremony. Even for the Canadian-born witnesses in the room, it is an emotionally charged moment. The judge leads the citizenship candidates through the Oath of Allegiance, Canada’s official oath. One hundred voices from 30 different countries make for an interesting chorus as they follow the judge’s own lyrical Trinidad- inflected English and French.

“I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors according to law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

And that is it. In less than an hour, Canada is 100 citizens richer. The singing of O Canada brings the ceremony to a close.

Outside the room, the Parkdale Intercultural Association has laid on a light buffet. As if to be polite, most of the 100 new Canadians pause for a quick cup of juice and a few snack foods but it is clear from their hurried pace that they are anxious to get on with their new lives as Canadians.

Hongxing Guo, who only 10 minutes ago was a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, is one of the few new Canadians who feels up to an interview. When asked how he feels, Guo jokes that he cannot decide whether he wants to become a hockey player or prime minster first. “Play hockey,” a passing new Canadian advises him. “You’ll make more money and people will like you.”

For Guo, the hardest part about learning to be Canadian was getting used to the way people in this country just speak their minds. “In China, people are much more cautious about what they say,” he adds. “Over here, people will talk about anything to anybody. For me, that was very hard to get used to.”

Another family willing to be interviewed was the Hakim family. They are typical of many of today’s new Canadians. Nine years ago Abdul Hakim came to Canada from Iraq because, as a member of the country’s Turkestan ethnic minority, Abdul saw little future for himself under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Arriving here as a landed immigrant, Abdul found work as a cabinetmaker and sent for his wife, Aynor. Their son, Mohammed, was born in Canada.

Like most immigrants, the Hakims are grateful for the things most native-born Canadians have long taken for granted. “Voting is a very great thing, but freedom is even more important,” he says. “In Canada we say what we want, worship how we want, see who we want and go where we want. We feel safe here.”

The ceremony, as stirring as it was, is just one of dozens that take place across Canada nearly every week of the year. Taken together, Canada’s population grows by roughly 225,000 immigrant citizens a year.

In 2001, Canada accepted more than a quarter of a million immigrants, a figure that was well above the planned intake of 200,000 to 225,000. This increase has helped fuel an emotional debate over how many immigrants Canada should accept. People point to the fact that other nations, including the United States and Australia, take only half as many per capita as Canada.

And while immigrants arrive here with dreams of a better life, living in Canada can be a very difficult transition. For one thing, the level of poverty among newcomers is high, and wages are low, despite the fact that a large percentage of adult immigrants have a post-secondary degree. Stories abound about highly skilled immigrants, including doctors and scientists, who are employed doing far less challenging work.

Canada–like the U.S. and Australia–is a nation built by immigrants. Excluding the First Nations people, everyone else residing here is either an immigrant or descended from one. However, the concept of Canadian citizenship is relatively recent.

When four of Britain’s Canadian colonies united into a single Dominion in 1867, they attempted to have the best of both worlds by choosing a democratically elected federal government like their neighbours, the U.S., and yet Canada retained the monarchy and chose to have its people designated British subjects. As a result, Canada became a nation without citizens. Under Canadian law, foreign born British subjects enjoyed exactly the same rights and privileges as British subjects born in Canada. These privileges included the right to vote, the right to run for political office and the right to be appointed to a Canadian government job. All a British subject needed to claim these privileges was a short residency of one year and sometimes less.

Of course these privileges were intended for male British subjects only. True, Canadian women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1917 but from 1867 to 1947, in citizenship matters female British subjects in Canada were still lumped in the same category as minors. If a Canadian-born woman married a non-British subject, her British subject status was revoked and she took on the nationality of her husband. This would have serious consequences during World War I and II when Canadian-born women married to German, Ukrainian or Italian immigrants suddenly found themselves classified as enemy aliens.

In the years just after Confederation, Canada needed millions of immigrants to fill up its largely unpopulated interior. Ideally, Canada wanted immigrants from Great Britain. A close second in desirability were Americans because they spoke English and usually knew how to homestead. Third in line were Europeans from the northern end of the continent. The Canadian government sent out recruitment pamphlets to Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and even Iceland. When this did not bring immigrants in sufficient numbers, the Canadian government looked yet further east to Poland, Russia and the Baltic countries.

At the same time, Canada actively discouraged immigrants from Asia. By the 1880s, the Chinese were just a small fraction of the West Coast population but their numbers were sufficient to cause anti-Asian riots in Vancouver in 1887 and 1907. The Canadian government responded by punishing the victims. Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act required new Chinese immigrants to pay a $50 “head” tax to enter the country.

The fee was raised to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903 and yet Chinese immigrants continued to come. In 1923, the Canadian government passed legislation that virtually suspended Chinese immigration. The act also took away the Chinese Canadian’s right to vote. The discriminatory legislation was repealed in 1947, although restrictions were not entirely removed until 1967.

Japanese immigrants faced similar discrimination in Canada. As early as 1860, British Columbia’s first governor, James Douglas, wrote of the Japanese: “They are certainly not a desirable class of people, as a permanent population, but are for the present useful as labourers, and, as consumers, of a revenue-paying character.” After the anti-Asian riot of 1907, the Canadian government restricted Japanese immigration to 400 people a year in 1908 and cut that to 150 a year in 1923.

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee can be blamed for anti-Indian sentiments that broke out in Canada in the early part of the 20th century. In the late 1800s, after participating in the London, England, celebration of Queen Victoria’s 75th year as sovereign, Indian troops passed through British Columbia by train on their way back to India. Obviously, some of them liked what they saw because by 1908, 5,159 Indian immigrants had stepped ashore in British Columbia. Much to the shock of Canadian authorities, they contended they had a right to settle in Canada because like native-born Canadians, they too were British subjects.

Unable to find a legal way of keeping more Indians from claiming their British subject privileges, the Canadian government passed the Bill of Direct Passage in 1908, which prevented Indians from immigrating to Canada unless their ship came directly from India. Because no ships passed directly from Canada to India, this effectively ended Indian emigration to Canada until after World War II.

Of Course, Canada was not alone in its xenophobia at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly every major European power plus the U.S. had adopted similar laws or worse. What is remarkable is that less than half a century later, Canada unilaterally began scrapping its racial barriers.

On the evening of Jan. 3, 1947, more than 100 bureaucrats, politicians, reporters and private individuals braved the sharp Ottawa winter to crowd into a large oak-trimmed courtroom in the Supreme Court of Canada. While film cameras rolled, 26 special guests were called forward one at a time to receive a certificate from Chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret. At the conclusion, these 26 people were pronounced something new and unique on the surface of the Earth. They were officially “Canadians.” Holding Canadian Citizen certificate 0001 was the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Later that evening, in his diary, King recorded how he had felt during the ceremony. “I have experienced a greater joy today and a sense of greater honour than the time of receiving the freedom of cities elsewhere and other marks of recognition…. It gave me a feeling of close fellowship with a number of folk all through the land.”

King saw similar emotions among his fellow new Canadians. “I can see the people of these different extractions are deeply moved by gaining full citizenship. It is impressive too to see different persons swearing their allegiance to the King.” His only regret was there were no “Negroes or Indians among our citizens. It would have made clear that colour was no ban to citizenship.” This is a very remarkable statement coming from a man who, as a young member of parliament, helped enact the Bill of Direct Passage in 1908. Just one month after King became a Canadian citizen, Canada welcomed its first non-white citizens. In a Vancouver ballroom on Feb.19, 1947, four men and three women of Chinese ancestry were given their Canadian citizenship certificates.

The creation of Canadian citizenship and also the notion that Canada should welcome other races, religions and creeds to settle within our borders was a sign of the national maturity that emerged during Canada’s unparalleled sacrifices in World War II. Shortly after that war, Canada’s Secretary of State, Paul Martin Sr., visited the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in France where the sight of more than 900 graves convinced him that the time was right for Canadians to assert themselves as a separate nationality. It was also time to scrap laws that discriminated on the basis of race and gender.

Under Martin’s initiative, the Canadian Citizenship Act made the following changes to the 1921 Canadian Nationals Act:

1) All Canadian citizens had automatic right of entry to Canada.

2) All new immigrants (Commonwealth countries included) could apply for citizenship only after they had resided in Canada for at least five years and they had taken out citizenship papers.

3) British subjects who were already residing in Canada would not lose their existing rights, which included the right to vote after one year’s residency in Canada.

4) Immigrants who had served in the Canadian armed forces during World War I and World War II were entitled to take out citizenship papers after one year.

5) Married women were given full authority over their citizenship status.

6) Citizenship was open to all Canadians regardless of race.

Although still not perfect, Canada’s immigration and citizenship laws had taken a leap forward in the creation of a nation of independent and equal citizens. Australia and New Zealand enacted similar legislation in 1947 but Canada was the first member of the Commonwealth to create its own citizenship. In 1967, the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson scrapped the last vestiges of immigration barriers based on race and within two decades, Canada became one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world.

According to a 1998 Statistics Canada report, 17 per cent of Canada’s population is now made up of immigrant Canadians, which is the highest percentage in 50 years. Eighty-five per cent of new immigrants are drawn to Canada’s urban centres. Immigrants now comprise 42 per cent of the population of Toronto, 33 per cent of Vancouver’s, and 18 per cent of Montreal’s.

What’s more, the majority of immigrants are now coming from parts of the world that were not traditional immigrant bases.

In 1910, the six largest sources of immigrants to Canada were the United States, 103,798; United Kingdom, 59,700; Italy, 7,118; Russia, 4,564; Austria, 4,105; and Portugal, 3,368. In 1951, the six largest immigrant sources to Canada were United Kingdom, 34,790; Italy, 28,432; Germany, 25,813, the Netherlands, 19,137; Poland, 20,408; and the United States, 6,904.

In the decade from 1961 to 1970, 745,565 people came to Canada as immigrants. The seven largest contributors were the United Kingdom, 160,005; Italy, 120,910; East Asia, including the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, 59,675; the United States, 46,880, Portugal, 44, 590; the West Indies, 42,740, and South Asia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, 26,600.

From 1971 to 1980, Canada received 936,275 immigrants, including 62,955 from North America, 54,919 from South America, 338,525 from Europe, 54,650 from Africa, 311,955 from East Asia and 77,230 from South Asia.

From 1981 to 1990, Canada received 1,041,495 immigrants, including the following: North America, 41,990, South America, 55,045, Europe, 266,185, Africa, 59,715 and Asia, 491,720.

The 1990s were Asia’s peak years. From 1991 to 2000, 1,830,680 immigrants came to Canada from Eastern Asia.

Of course, Canadian immigrant laws are still a work in process. On Oct. 31, 2002, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Denis Coderre introduced Bill C-18 in the House of Commons. This latest Canadian Citizenship Act proposes the following changes:

1) The Oath of Allegiance has been revised. The Queen is still there but, interestingly enough, new Canadians will no longer have to swear allegiance to her heirs. The proposed new oath is:

“From this day forward, I pledge my loyalty and allegiance to Canada and Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada. I promise to respect our country’s rights and freedoms, to uphold our democratic values, to faithfully observe our laws and fulfil my duties and obligations as a Canadian citizen.”

2) People who entered Canada on a student visa, visitor or temporary worker can now apply some of the time they spent here in Canada toward their application process.

3) People convicted of participation in terrorism, war crimes or organized crime can have their citizenship revoked after a trial by judge.

4) Foreign children adopted abroad by Canadians will become citizens without having to enter Canada as permanent residents and apply for citizenship.

According to Statistics Canada, Canada needs immigrants. A report released in 1998 states that as the natural-born Canadian birth rate declines to the zero point by the year 2020, the only way for Canada’s population to increase will be through immigration. As the mean age of Canada’s population also increases, we will also need immigrants just to fill the jobs left vacant as an ever larger segment of the Canadian population reaches retirement age.

The cost of bringing in new immigrants is almost impossible to pin down. As a nation, Canada spends billions maintaining a Department of Citizenship and Immigration that is responsible for processing the hundreds of thousands of applications. However, once the immigrants arrive, the cost of helping them assimilate into the community mostly falls on the provincial government and municipal communities in which they settle.

Cities like Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto are definitely feeling strained as English or second language programs, public housing and other settlement programs exceed their budgets. On the other hand, these urban centres are also reaping the tax revenues and consumer dollars spent by these hardworking newcomers.

A look at Canada’s past is testament to how important immigration was to building this country. A look at our present shows that immigrants have made an impact on our parliament, our Governor General’s office and even our sacred National Hockey League. A look at Canada’s future indicates that immigrants will be no less important to the continued well-being of this nation. The glue that holds Canada together is citizenship, forged in blood during World War II and tempered with justice in the ensuing peace.


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