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No one much likes taking a test. What's to like about it? Tests put people under pressure and cause them self-doubt. They are invariably held in freezing examination rooms, while battling the flu, without having had adequate time to prepare. Being judged is stressful. Being forced to live with the consequences of that single judgment seems unfair.

Even so, in 2016, Canadians will be sitting for an important test, one rooted in the most fundamental marker of our lives as social beings – our citizenship. Though the exercise won't be graded, it is a pass-or-fail affair. The results won't affect our short-term prospects, but they will count, emphatically, toward the future.

Let's call it a citizenship test with a difference. The group that might appear at first glance to be the obvious test takers – the 25,000 to 50,000 Syrians expected to arrive next year – aren't eligible. Longer-term permanent residents currently applying for citizenship, and who actually do take a test as part of the process, will form only a tiny minority.

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No, the vast majority of test takers will be current citizens, and the subject will be citizenship, in real time, and at a defining moment in our nation's evolution. How we comport ourselves in 2016 will determine how advanced our citizenship truly is, and how easily and inclusively that evolution will unfold.

A few facts. For decades Canada has been relying on immigration to do more than enrich the country, in just about every way imaginable – culture and cuisine, aesthetics and fashion, to name a few. We've also used the recent annual average 250,000 new arrivals to keep our economy prosperous by countering otherwise dropping birth rates.

This pattern isn't only going to continue; it will accelerate. So much so that, by 2030, it is expected that all population growth will result from immigrants. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with roughly half of its six million residents born outside the country, the future is already the present. But that dynamic is set to spread from coast to coast.

As a society, we've barely digested the implications of this shift. Once, Canada was a 19th-century nation-state that took in immigrants and refugees. Those newcomers were designated, and to a degree self-defined, as minorities, aspirants to the elusive mainstream. There were gates and there were gatekeepers. Some got through. Many did not.

More and more, Canada is a 21st-century post-nation-state, a plurality of minorities gathered inside a single space, itself perhaps an emerging notion of what a country is, or could be. Power is being steadily redistributed. No longer is there any one gatekeeper. No longer do most of us look for just one gate to push open.

All this is well under way, and remarkable. It is also a kind of society-sized experiment.

What can go wrong with experiments? In the coming months, one small risk surely does involve bringing in a large contingent of refugees from a particular background at a time when some people, alarmed by the news and inclined to conflate different subjects, are afraid of who, or what, they think those newcomers are.

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Our collective response to the Syrian arrivals may well foreshadow how we evolve into the society we are statistically set to become. 2016 may seem fated to be the year of the refugee. Instead, it could prove to be the year – year one, in fact – of the Canadian citizen, writ radical.

"This is a defining moment for Canada," Governor-General David Johnston said at a recent Rideau Hall summit on the Syrians, "a defining moment for all of us."

In most regards, Syrians are like every other refugee group. We've been reminding ourselves lately of how well we managed with the Vietnamese in the late 1970s, and the Hungarians in the late 1950s. There is a certain degree of false comfort in this. Surrounding these good-news stories, of course, have been numerous other arrivals, many of whose rights we violated. Japanese internment camps shouldn't be forgotten. Nor the turning away of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, or Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver harbour.

To explain Canada's often begrudging acceptance of immigrants, some of us insist on arcing all the way back to a foundational narrative to make the point. In the spring and summer of 1847, the sleepy colonial outpost of Toronto had its population involuntarily tripled by boatloads of Irish escaping the great famine. "A calamity upon the Province," is how one emigration agent described the hasty influx of 40,000 impoverished Celts.

Locals, then largely of British extraction, felt much put upon, and didn't like the Irish showing up in such large numbers, and in such a woeful state. They treated the newcomers badly. But things turned out okay for sleepy Toronto, now the astounding GTA, and the province, and, for that matter, Irish-Canadians. They've turned out okay for most everyone else, as well.

With the Syrians, however, there are, unfortunately, uneasy circumstances. None emanates from the refugees themselves, it must be stressed – all are projections upon them. Some people try to draw dark links between a global religion and a virulent extremist movement. Suspicions of guilt are being raised, based on ethnicity and geography alone. Most of the accusers are scared and ignorant, but some are craven and cynical, intent on havoc.

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Little in reality confirms these anxieties – terrorists don't huddle in camps for years and then apply to immigrate; terrorists are usually homegrown – but they exist. In Europe, especially, the sane political centre may be at temporary risk. In the United States, there is Donald Trump, among other worries.

"Alienness," the author Pico Iyer writes, "inheres not in a place or object, but in our relation to it. Our fears – of course – are as irrational as our dreams." In the 21st-century Canada I've been outlining, it isn't easy to hold on to those irrational fears of the proverbial alien or "other." There is just too rapid and ongoing a dissolve of us-and-them divisions for such narrow, dismal thinking to survive scrutiny.

Even so, we've already had the election niqab controversy and the Peterborough mosque attack, and it is naïve to assume 2016 will pass without further attacks and signs of strain. Whatever they are, we'll need to remain calm and assured, and stand our values' ground. Those values can be, must be, expressed through gestures of welcome, large and small.

For example, I work at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), a not-for-profit based in downtown Toronto. One of our programs is the Cultural Access Pass (CAP). It provides new citizens a year of free admission to more than 1,200 cultural attractions, parks and historic sites across the country, and is a modest way of issuing a welcome, and encouraging a sense of belonging. For 2016 we're going to extend a version of the pass to the Syrians, to say the same, and in case others might be sending them different messages.

Passing our collective citizenship test in 2016 will involve making many such gestures, along with a real thoughtfulness and self-awareness about the "defining moment" the Governor-General has described.

It isn't just about the year ahead, either. It is about the years, decades, to come.

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It is also about 2017, and the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Celebrate the sesquicentennial, we all surely will. But the anniversary should also serve as the next platform to engage in honest exchanges about the kind of country we once were and the kind of country we're in the process – always the process – of becoming.

Accepting, embracing, the present and future Canada may compel a still greater appetite for the necessary self-examination around issues concerning our complex history with immigrants and First Nations, Métis and Inuit. We sure do need to make a few things right.

If we can keep working on this while celebrating, in 2017, then the next Syrians – whoever they prove to be – will be likewise welcomed, and the next group again after that. The statistical destination of 2030 may soon cease to have any real meaning: By then, we'll probably already be that bold post-nation-state Canada, with its plurality of minorities and advanced citizenship.

Charles Foran is chief executive officer of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

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