(Now) I am Canadian
I'm not so much leaving the United States as embracing Canada with greater focus, Susan Bloch-Nevitte writes
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When did you first become aware that you might be a U.S. citizen?
Of the countless documents I had to complete in order to renounce my U.S. citizenship, it was this question on U.S. Department of State form DS-4079 that gave me pause that day last fall. Was it when my stridently Democratic family clustered around the black and white TV to watch John F. Kennedy's triumphant inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961? Was it July 20, 1969, when that same family gathered around our first colour TV as moon walker Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind? Perhaps that particularly extravagant fireworks display on July 4, 1976?
Picking through the threads of my 64 years as a U.S. citizen, I found sturdy memories, but no conscious moments of citizenship. Like dessert on the blue plate special, my citizenship came with the meal. I dismissively wrote "at birth" and moved on to the next question.
I'd have been a lot less dismissive if form DS-4079 had asked: When did you first become aware you might not want to be a U.S. citizen? That thought didn't occur to me when I moved to Canada as a landed immigrant 30 years ago, nor when I became a Canadian citizen 11 years ago – my first conscious moment of Canadian citizenship. And despite the petty annoyances of two passports and two tax deadlines, dual citizenship was largely an amusement – a trusty conversation starter on both sides of the border, from health care to the pronunciation of Regina.
But, like the first sign of a long-forgotten lunch in the office fridge, it took some time before troubling distinctions between the United States and Canada began to emerge – among them, the rise of the Tea Party with its economic and social divisiveness and the relentless endurance of the gun lobby when even Sandy Hook wasn't a catalyst for change. I didn't understand it, I didn't feel a part of it and I began to understand why American backpackers travelling abroad stitched the Canadian maple leaf onto their knapsacks.
Dual citizenship was becoming less amusing as these and other convulsions took hold in the United States, all in shrill contrast to my experience of Canada as a place of civility, safety and welcoming diversity. More than 250,000 immigrants come to Canada every year, rendering the daily subway ride a rich cultural experience and a constant reminder of worlds outside my own. "I'm sorry," is the default exchange between two people on a collision course, regardless of who is at fault.
Family and friends assumed that my decision to renounce my U.S. citizenship was sparked by Donald Trump's election. "An over-rated citizen. So sad!" he might tweet if it were very early in his morning and ex-expats mattered at all. Admittedly, it was in those sleepless hours after the 2:45 a.m. confirmation of Trump's win that I asked my lawyer to officially begin the renunciation process. But looking back, as U.S. Department of State form DS-4079 insists, it's clear that the decision took years to evolve and months of brooding to enact. Like a first-timer in a bank heist, I was in, I was out, I was in again. Yet, I kept coming back to the same conclusion: My life had long been, and would remain, in Canada. There was nothing dual about it. As for Trump, he was merely the culmination, the last straw, the final act before my own, ultimately played out in the U.S. Consulate in Halifax.
An unassuming office on the ninth floor of a tower overlooking the Atlantic ocean, the consulate felt nothing like the fortress I'd come to know in my hometown of Toronto. Because the waiting list for renunciation appointments was approaching one year there, I'd opted for Halifax, where I didn't have to wait as long. As if renewing a driver's licence, I paid my fee at one wicket and completed my paperwork at another. Initially, it was more transactional than transformational. And although being scrupulously prepared by my lawyer for potentially penetrating questions, there were none. As for why I was renouncing, no one asked.
The process of renunciation is not quite complete. There's one last filing of U.S. taxes and the obscure celebrity of having my name appear in the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Federal Register, a quarterly listing of "individuals who have chosen to expatriate." I'll be among some 5,000 others.
To my family and friends in the United States, I say, I'm not so much leaving the United States as embracing Canada with greater focus, mindful of its own challenges and my responsibility to help address them. And although I voted myself off the island, I wear no immunity necklace against the social and political upheaval in the United States. It's still painful listening to the news.
But, today, I am Canadian. And as it turns out, my most conscious moment of Canadian citizenship, among many, came inside a U.S. Consulate, reading aloud the oath of U.S. renunciation.
Susan Bloch-Nevitte lives in Toronto.