Citizens at last

This morning, my wife and I had a 2-1/2-hour-long Zoom session with a judge, a dozen immigration officers, and 119 other applicants for citizenship in Canada. According to the officers, there were people from 39 different countries of origin on the call. We were all there to take our oath of citizenship, the last step to becoming full Canadian citizens.

I first moved to Montreal in 2002 on a 6-month tourist visa. We came here permanently in 2003, and ever since we have been going from student visa to work visa to permanent residence and now to citizenship. We’ve filled out a lot, and I mean a lot, of paperwork. There’s been a lot of filing and a lot of requesting records from places I didn’t think would have records of us. We’ve had two kids in Canada; they’ve both got US and Canadian passports.

Of course, many of the people in the Zoom call had much, much more trouble to get there than we did. Violence, poverty, difficult travels through dangerous places. It felt good to be part of the same thing together for a few hours.

I’ve felt more of a Montrealer than anything else during the time we’ve been here. When people have called me Canadian, I’ve been careful to correct them, not taking credit for something I wasn’t, yet. I didn’t have to do anything to become part of this city except move here, but the province of Quebec and the nation of Canada require a more formal commitment.

The Canadian oath of citizenship explicitly names Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, as the person you’re pledging loyalty to. I originally didn’t want to become a citizen because I didn’t want to make this oath; it felt like turning my back on one of the things the US stands for. But after almost two decades here, I’ve come to terms with living in a constitutional monarchy. I love the dynamic, responsive democracy we have here in Canada, and I want to participate as a voter, not sit on the sidelines in the country that is our home.

We got our invitation last Monday, on November 1, a few days after the 95-year-old Queen cancelled her trip to Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit for health reasons. We knew we’d have about a week, so we’ve been keeping an eye on Her Majesty’s health. I don’t know what they’d do if there was a change in who’s on the throne really close to the ceremony. Fortunately, she’s doing fine, so we got to pledge to her in the call today.

We spent the first 30 minutes of the call making sure we had all our papers in order, then waiting a Zoom breakout with all the other people waiting to be finished. That was great; watching all the other families, waving, seeing what kind of people were on. There were a lot of Canadian flags, and poppies, and some Quebec flags too.

Eventually when we were all ready the judge gave us a few remarks about our rights and duties as new Canadians. She started off with an acknowledgement that many of us were on unceded indigenous land — both her office and our house are in Tiohtià:ke, the traditional local name for Montreal. It set off a little conceptual vertigo; if this is unceded land, were we swearing our allegiance to the right people? Who actually has a right to let us live here? This topic wasn’t covered in our citizenship booklet. I decided stifle my interest, to not interrupt and let her continue her talk to the end.

My wife just read a book about Mary, Queen of Scots. I got interested in that strange phrasing — why isn’t she called the Queen of Scotland instead? I found out that many of her predecessors used the term King or Queen of Scots, meaning, they were leaders of the people, and not owners of the land. Maybe that’s what the Queen of Canada is, in a way; sovereign of a people who live on someone else’s land without permission, and who need to figure out how to make that right. In any event, I’m part of that now, so it’s also my problem.

The oath itself was maybe the most excruciating Zoom event I’ve been part of. We had to go off mute to repeat the oath, line-by-line, after the judge. 121 people, speaking at the same time, on a Zoom call. It did not go smoothly. The officials are there to check that everyone keeps their right hand up the entire time, and to make sure everyone says the oath. It took a while; some of the kids had to hold up their right arms with their left hands. We did the oath in both French and English. One of the other applicants was saying the English words during the French version, and we all had to start over from the beginning.

After the oath, we all sang O Canada (the French-first bilingual version; there are four official versions!). There was a karaoke-style video, so we could follow along without getting prompts from the judge. Nobody checked if you were doing it right, so you could just give ‘er.

There is something magical in the process of swearing oaths and becoming something else; having people treat you a different way, and having things you can do that you couldn’t do before you said the correct words. It feels supernatural. Maybe some of our new citizenship mana is even now flowing across the Atlantic to the Queen and keeping her healthy. God save her!

One thought on “Citizens at last

  1. Welcome aboard. Canada is not perfect, as of course you’re aware, but it’s pretty great, and together we can make it better.

    Personally, I find the Canadian monarchy charming, as well as an important element of a highly successful constitutional structure. Vive la Reine !

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