Russell Banks is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest novel, Foregone, was published this month.
Though I was born in the United States, all my life I’ve been a Canadian citizen. De facto, however, not de jure. My father was born in Bathurst, N.B., in 1916, migrated to the U.S. with his parents in the early 1930s and didn’t apply for U.S. citizenship until 1946. His application was granted solely on the grounds that he had a six-year-old native born American son. That was me, his “anchor baby.”
In addition to my father, three of my grandparents were Canadian. They were from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Irish-Scots descendants of British loyalists who fled New England after the American War of Independence. My grandparents returned 150 years later to the same city their ancestors had abandoned, Waltham, Mass., where there was work and a New Deal.
I was born in nearby Watertown, an American baby, for all I knew. For most of the rest of my life I have lived near the Canadian border in northern New England and upstate New York and have travelled back and forth as if trading manufactured goods for furs, although it’s been novels and films I’ve traded and American dollars for Canadian. Same thing.
According to Canadian law, because of my parentage and grand-parentage, I’m a de facto Canadian citizen and needed only to file an application to have it certified, which I submitted last April. My brother Steve, two years younger than I, has done the same thing, and he and his British-born wife, both retired university professors, are in the process of selling their home in Idaho and moving with their dogs and cats and two horses to an island in British Columbia. He’s serious.
But am I serious? During the Vietnam War and the Reagan years and when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, sure, like a lot of American leftists, I toyed with the idea of relocating to Canada and making my citizenship official. But the war finally ended, and the Reagan years became the Clinton years, and Mr. Trump was sent packing to Mar-a-Lago.
So it wasn’t patriotism that kept me from packing up and relocating in Canada. It was inertia. Which is as true today as it was then. At the age of 81, with a home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a summer place in the Adirondacks and a condo in Miami, unlike my brother, I have no intentions of moving to Canada. (After my last move I swore that I would never again pack and unpack another box of books.) Yet here I am, applying to have my Canadian citizenship made official.
So why go to the trouble of becoming a certified de jure Canadian citizen, unless I intend to live there? Why bother? On a superficial level, it’s a way to affiliate myself politically with Canada, or any number of other semi-socialist countries, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It’s a way to perform my critique of America’s brutal capitalistic form of governance. It’s a way to state the obvious, that I’m unhappy with the direction this country has taken in recent decades.
But this means that it’s not about Canada, it’s about the United States. Obviously, there are more effective ways to express this critique from south of the border as an American citizen than as a Canadian, and I do make that effort through my writing and in my daily life. I’m not the activist I was in the 1960s and 70s, maybe, but I do send money to help register Black voters in Georgia and keep progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren politically viable.
In fact, my desire to certify my status as a Canadian is mostly symbolic and emotional and deeply subjective and is of no likely use to anyone except me and my immediate family, especially my four very American daughters and my grandchildren, born and unborn. It’s tribal. I want my children and grandchildren to know and embrace my tribal allegiance, to make my Canadian origin a significant part of their family history – in a way that my father and his parents and my mother’s Canadian mother did not do for me. Like most immigrants to the U.S., they were eager to erase their origins. It sped up their Americanization.
It’s not easy to erase that erasure. My grandson was born in Ethiopia and was adopted as an infant and lives now in Los Angeles, a 13-year-old, dreadlocked Black American kid in a hoodie cruising his neighbourhood streets on his skateboard. My granddaughter is a young white woman living in Harlem with her husband producing videos to promote birth control for teenaged girls. To them and to their mothers and aunts, my daughters, my Canadian family past, my identity as a Canadian, is little more than dad’s and granddad’s partially mythologized, harmless, sentimentalized story about a distant, dead past.
But I want it to be more real than that for them and more immediate. I want my identity as a Canadian to be a significant part of my legacy. To do that, I first have to claim it. Also, for myself alone, I simply want to honour my father’s and my grandparents’ origins, the way I hope my children and grandchildren will someday honour mine. I want to merge my life’s story in the U.S. with my ancestors’ tales of two-and-a-half centuries of work and love in the Maritime provinces of Canada.
I’m late to the party, maybe, but I hope the certification of my citizenship will smooth things over a little between me and those ancestral ghosts. I’m hoping that maybe they won’t feel that I went off to the U.S., got myself a work permit and a green card and forgot about them, like my father and those three Canadian grandparents. I don’t want them to feel that I have consigned them to oblivion.
My father must have felt an impulse not unlike this, as if he sought, in what he would have regarded as a weak moment, to reconnect with his Canadian past. He ended up in his 60s a plumber in New Hampshire, alcoholic, depressed and alone, and every summer he took two weeks off and drove in his pickup truck with the camper bed up to New Brunswick, grabbing on the way a case of Canadian Club at the New Hampshire state liquor store. For two weeks he’d fish all day in the rivers and lakes surrounding Bathurst and later drink till he fell asleep in his camper, dreaming of Canada, calling back into his dreams his Canadian childhood and adolescence, a world his parents never thought worth preserving for him. Maybe my certification of citizenship is my way of doing the same – making his memories my own – but doing it in a way that’s less lonely, less depressed, less denied. Making it something I can pass on.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.