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As our flight landed in Montreal, I could see the red maple leaves on the tails of other planes parked next to the terminal. This was not our first trip to Canada, I had witnessed this scene before. But this time was different. We were entering Canada for the first time as immigrants. After five years of our case files travelling through immigration offices in five countries and across three continents, we finally reached the day we had awaited for so long. We were going to become New Canadians.

Now, three years have passed since that day and we can comfortably shed the “new” and call ourselves more or less Canadians. At least, this is how I see myself. Believe it or not, I have been called a Canadian (before I actually became one) as an insult many times in my life. Mostly, it was because I was either too polite, patient or defending a stranger who was being bullied, or going out of my way to help someone. Once a bystander said aloud: “Who do you think you are? A Canadian?”

Three years on, my family has developed many other peculiarly Canadian traits besides courtesy and compassion. My son loves hockey, my daughter consumes poutine in copious quantities and me and my husband have become veterans at battling the common enemy of all Canadians: winter. Going through repetitive cycles of shovelling, salting, defensive driving on slick icy roads and trying to make sense of total white outs in the middle of the highway, has all become second nature.

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Humour aside, I feel blessed to be a Canadian. I thank my creator every day that I was given this opportunity to live on this land and to belong to it. It might sound cheesy to some, but those of us who have worked so hard and waited so long to get here, who have experienced extremely difficult lives in other parts of the world know it is indeed a huge blessing. I’ve lived in Pakistan, Switzerland and Lebanon, so I have been exposed to many cultures and points of view. I can say with confidence that Canada is different.

What’s so special about this country? For one, it is huge. Universal health care and education, rule of law, peace and security, tolerance and acceptance, justice and opportunity are just a few of the many things which we take for granted but are an impossible dream and luxury for billions around the world.

But what I value above everything else is diversity and freedom.

Within a 20-mile radius of where I live, there are churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. In our neighbourhood, the festival never ends, as we have families who celebrate Christmas, Eid, Diwali, Hanukkah, Chinese New Year and so on. We can enjoy cuisine from every part of the world and hear at least six different languages spoken during a half-hour of grocery shopping.

Then, there are the many freedoms. We sometimes don’t realize that they make us who we are. We are free to read and free to write, free to learn and free to teach, free to work and earn with dignity, no matter what gender, colour, race or belief we belong to. We are free to wear what we want and to be where we want. Free to eat what we want and free to drink what we want. Free to love whoever we wish and free to let go when it doesn’t work out. Free to believe in any religion and free not to believe at all. Free to work hard and free to play hard. Free to speak and free to remain silent. And finally free to live and free to die, if life becomes too painful.

None of these freedoms came easily and they need to be protected, every day of our lives. Freedom of choice is at the heart of what makes us Canadian, and anything that threatens this core value has to be challenged and deflected. On this front, we have to stand on guard. So, our true north stays strong ... and above everything else, free.

I am not ignorant of the atrocities that have occurred in the dark chapters of the Canadian story. Neither blind to the injustices we have inherited and unfortunately perpetuate. Colonialism, cultural genocide and systemic racism are no strangers to this country. We have the calibre to become moral leaders, yet we first need to bring our own house in order. But we are trying, right? Canada has proven to be a refuge for broken people everywhere. From religious minorities, to war-weary refugees. From women trying to escape countries with draconian patriarchal laws to the LGBTQ community members facing persecution in their country of origin, all have found a safe haven on this blessed land. I agree, we are broken and we need to fix ourselves, too, but isn’t it the Canadian way to help those in need of care and assistance, all the while trying to heal our own wounds?

I strongly feel we can do both. This is what I’ve learned in the last three years of my life here.

Asma Azeem-Qureshi lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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