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Katherine Ashenburg. (Globe and Mail Update)
Katherine Ashenburg. (Globe and Mail Update)

Katherine Ashenburg

An American in Canada: Why I took the citizenship plunge Add to ...

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.

Early in May, trying my best to get my voice above a quaver, I raised my right hand and swore that I would be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen of Canada and her heirs and successors.

Even reading that sentence now fills me with surprise. I’m an American, but for decades I’ve thought of myself as a natural Canadian – I’m eager to compromise, slow to anger, sympathetic to socialized medicine, wry humour and gay marriage. “Peace, order and good government” strike me as good goals whereas, depending on the day, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can sound a bit, well, extravagant.

In spite of this, I’ve lived in Canada for 49 years and only became a citizen recently. In my first decade or so in Canada, perhaps because it was such an easy fit, I wasn’t sure citizenship was necessary. But, as I regularly renewed my permanent-resident card over the years, the word “permanent” took on more weight. Realizing that I would probably live in Canada forever, benefiting from its civilized tolerance, I thought it seemed cynical not to become a citizen.

There were a few obstacles along the way. Americans do not have to renounce their American citizenship when they become Canadians. But for this American, swearing an oath to obey the Queen and all her successors – the crucial step in the citizenship ceremony – was a hurdle. When you’ve been brought up on the drama of the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s midnight ride, swearing allegiance to an English Queen does not immediately strike you as progress.

And yes, I fully agree that recent events in America suggest that democracy has its limitations. And I am confident that voting in Canada’s municipal, provincial and federal elections will satisfy my democratic inclinations. But while the English monarchy has very few real powers, its symbolism is potent, even in Canada. It was the symbol I had to accept, which I did gradually and sometimes grudgingly, helped in no small part by the character of Elizabeth herself. Long before I wallowed in Netflix’s series The Crown last winter, I had grasped that this very rich nonagenarian who dresses in look-at-me colours and seems to reserve strong emotions for her corgi dogs is a self-abnegating, ferociously hard-working woman whose understanding of the continuity she represents is literally religious.

Once I had reconciled myself to the Queen and the idea of a constitutional monarchy, the tedious work of filling in forms and locating documents began. My road to citizenship was incomparably smoother than it is for many of the 300,000 immigrants and refugees who arrived in Canada last year. Still, Canada doesn’t make it easy, and my first two attempts failed. When I first applied, probably in the early 1980s, you had to have lived in Canada for three out of the preceding four years; I had been out of the country for 14 months on a sabbatical. When I was disqualified, even if only temporarily, I put all the forms, documents and calculations in a manila envelope and mislaid it for a decade or so.

My next attempt stalled because my husband and I had entered the country during the Vietnam War, when many landed-immigrant documents were forged by draft evaders. This was not the case with us, but when the citizenship officer told me I had to get an extra document from Ottawa to prove that, my heart sank. I had reached the limit of my tolerance for red tape. I put all the papers in an envelope marked “Canadian Citizenship,” which I never saw again.

More decades went by, and in the summer of 2016, thinking it was now or never, I re-entered the fray. This time I overcame my aversion to bureaucracy and submitted to scary questionnaires such as the “physical presence calculator,” in which I had to enumerate every single absence of even a day from Canada in the past six years. Someone recently joked to me that you needed a PhD to complete the citizenship forms. Well, I have a PhD, and my application was returned more than once because I had failed to understand a question. But persistence paid off, and early in May I went to a bleak government building in Toronto for my citizenship ceremony.

There were not many white faces in the crowd of 50 new Canadians who assembled that morning. A woman, one of several who wore festive dresses from the Indian subcontinent, billowed by in a garment made of what looked like yellow parachute silk. A tall young man wore a black T-shirt that said, “Finally I Can Vote.” But most were soberly dressed in business clothes, like me, or – more often – jeans.

Albert Wong, the citizenship judge, had come to Canada with his ethnic Chinese family at the age of 13 from Malaysia and served almost 40 years in the navy. Welcoming the roomful of citizens-to-be, he said, “Your diversity is our diversity.” Pointedly, he told us that one of the distinguishing marks of Canadian society is the equality of men and women. I liked that. Another important part of Canadian life, he said, is volunteering: Become a volunteer. And unexpectedly, he exhorted the parents to involve their children in the arts, something he said was important for the health of the country.

Then came the heart of the ceremony, the swearing of the oath of allegiance. The clerk of the court told us firmly that we had to be heard taking the oath. Mouthing the words was not acceptable. He seemed to be looking straight at me, but that may have been because I was in the front row. I’m not sure how audible I was because by that time tears were flowing. But behind my tremolo was someone who was finally ready to be a Canadian.

After receiving our certificates of citizenship and singing the national anthem (more tears, predictably at the line, “The True North strong and free”), the judge urged us not to see the day as a culmination, but as a “threshold moment.” Other than being able to vote, I wonder what lies on the other side of the threshold. For decades, I’ve felt very American in Canada, as I chafe at what can sound like Canadian smugness about America’s problems and failures. And in America, I can feel very Canadian, and irritated, when confronted with Americans’ not infrequent ignorance and lack of curiosity about Canada. I wonder if that will change.

Becoming a Canadian feels like having lived with someone for decades and finally marrying him. A friend who did that was surprised at what a difference it made, making her feel more grounded, more secure in her choice, more herself. I think I know what she means, but I’ll wait and see how that develops. I’m not going to press the marriage metaphor too hard, because I can see that in my case it leads to bigamy. Let’s just say I am grateful not to have to abandon the home of the brave while I enrich my domain with the True North, strong and free.

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