Emily Kellogg is a writer and editor based in Toronto.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, the Canada-U.S. border has been closed to all non-essential travel, including family visits and tourism, since mid-March. It is unclear when these travel restrictions will be lifted.
I support the closing, as I do all precautions to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic, which has killed more than 120,000 people in the United States and 8,500 in Canada. Still, this lockdown period has undoubtedly been a test of all our abilities to endure isolation and anxiety. And as a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. – whose immediate family lives in California – I feel the sting of fear caused by the border closing particularly acutely.
I am afraid of the prolonged estrangement from my family, and afraid of my own powerlessness should any harm befall them. I am afraid of the repercussions of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic and the cruelty of its President. I am afraid that I will never hug my parents again. I am afraid that I will never have the chance to meet my seven-month-old niece.
I am afraid that I have become alien to a country that was once my home, and I am struggling to make sense of my identity as both an American and a Canadian who has chosen to make a life for herself in Toronto. As we approach Canada Day and the Fourth of July, a time of year when I reflect on my relationship with these two countries, I feel conflicted about my idea of home, and I feel further away from parts of my family than ever before.
My Canadian mother and American father met on the Eiffel Tower. According to my father, it was love at first sight. According to my mother, she saw an obnoxious American traveller and his friend, and made a point to avoid them. According to them both, they fell in love over the course of a European tour before each returning to their respective homes of San Jose, Calif., and Saskatoon.
They kept up their long-distance relationship, and were married in a small church in Alameda, Sask., in December, 1982. The dry reception took place in the church’s basement. As the story goes, my grandfather, a travelling salesman from the San Francisco Bay Area, was shocked by the lack of alcohol. In pursuit of beer, he foolishly made his way into the minus-30 C night with nothing but his suit jacket for warmth – only to quickly return, half-frost bitten and empty-handed.
I was born eight years later, primarily growing up in an area south of San Francisco, in the heart of what is now known as Silicon Valley. I spent a good chunk of every summer in my mother’s hometown of Carlyle, Sask. – and as much as California was a home, so too was my family’s farm full of endless fields, raspberry bushes, barn cats and horses that tried to snack on my hair.
As a child in the 1990s, to me, the border between the two countries hardly seemed to exist. It almost felt superfluous to say that I was a dual citizen, because in my mind there was hardly a distinction. I had no real concept that I was travelling across a border to see my family and my second home. I was much too preoccupied with the variety of chips and candy bars that were available only in Canada, to care much for the intricacies of national identity and citizenship.
Along with many others, my perception of the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. I was in my kitchen in Hillsborough, Calif., eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast, when I turned on the TV and watched, in horror, as the Twin Towers burned.
At school, classes were suspended in favour of an assembly in which we sang patriotic songs, pledged allegiance to the flag and praised the vague, American ideal of “freedom.” All of us were confused and tense, waiting to see whether there was to be more violence to come. Unfortunately, there was – though perhaps of the kind we couldn’t have conceived of as 11-year-old children.
Over the next few years, I learned phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction” and “axis of evil.” I went to restaurants and ordered “freedom fries,” and went home to watch protesters on the news. I slowly lost my naiveté as I became aware that I was growing up under the reality of a government fraught with corruption and in a country at war.
And when I visited my second home, I now carried two passports. I filled out paperwork. I answered the gruff questions of intimidating border guards.
For the first time, I began to worry about what would happen if there was ever a war between Canada and the U.S. Would I be forced to make a choice between my family’s farm in small-town Saskatchewan and the suburban home I shared with my parents and brother in California?
What would I do if borders were no longer open to me?
For the past 12 years, I have made my home in Toronto – while my parents, as well as my older brother and his family, have settled in California. Much of my extended family remains in Saskatchewan.
I have taken time since the border closing to reflect on the fear I feel for my family, along with the privilege that I hold as a cisgendered white woman with dual citizenship – the privilege that for so long shielded me from confronting difficult questions regarding my identity and allowed me to hold onto the belief that, no matter what, borders would always be open to me.
I recognize, for example, that any fear or anxiety I experience about being unable to reach my family during the pandemic pales in comparison to the pain caused by the atrocity of family separation at the Mexico-U.S. border. And I recognize that white supremacy plays a role in the differences with which the Canada-U.S. border and the Mexico-U.S. border are policed – both by the government and culturally.
I have also reflected on the fact that, in all the places I have considered home throughout my life, I have always been a settler living on stolen Indigenous land. Carlyle, Sask., is covered by Treaty 2 and is the traditional territory of Ocean Man First Nation, Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation, and White Bear First Nation. Toronto is covered by Treaty 13, and is the traditional territory of many nations including Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. San Francisco consists of the occupied territories of the Ohlone peoples and the Coastal Miwok (who, along with the Southern Pomo, are organized as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria).
As a settler, when I think and write about citizenship, I must recognize that borders, as they stand now, are a result of colonialism.
Like many, I was stunned by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. That night, my entire body was racked with sobs, and I clung to friends as we chugged what was supposed to be celebratory sparkling wine. I woke the next morning with a splitting headache and an impending sense of doom. In a way that I hadn’t felt since Sept. 11, 2001, it felt like the fabric of my reality had fundamentally changed.
Despite living in Canada, in the immediate aftermath of the election, l found myself overwhelmed and obsessed with the goings-on of our southern neighbour. I preened under the international praise of Canada, comforting myself with the belief that at least one of my homes was somehow exempt from generations of racism and social oppression.
I realize now that I was deluding myself.
Given the din of politics in the U.S., it can be too easy to overlook Canada – even for its own citizens. Likewise, it can be tempting to idealize Canada as a foil to the “intolerant south” and to define Canada and its national identity as what it is not – the United States. “Meanwhile in Canada” memes contrasting Canada’s “niceness” with violence in the U.S. too often hide darker truths that don’t mesh with Canada’s conception of itself.
But the truth is, Canada is many things – both wonderful and terrible. And like the U.S., it is an imperfect country.
Canada is my dearly beloved chosen home, and I am grateful for so much. But as both an American and Canadian citizen, I hold conflicting truths.
I hate Donald Trump’s America, but I deeply miss drinking wine with my parents and watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I support the Canadian federal government, but I still urge Ottawa to do better. I miss my family in California, but I cherish my communities in Ontario and Saskatchewan.
I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable travelling to California, or even when I’ll be comfortable in a shopping mall. I don’t know whether the U.S. will continue to morph into a place unrecognizable to me, or if one day I will again call it home.
But as I reflect on what it is to be both a Canadian and an American, I find myself thinking about what it is to be a citizen – fraught as that term might be.
To me, fulfilling your duty as a citizen is about much more than yelling about making things great, singing national anthems, or languishing in self-congratulatory memes. Rather, citizenship is about caring for your fellow community members, and challenging yourself to lift up those around you. And as we commemorate both Canada Day and the Fourth of July, I think it’s important to remember that liberty and justice are not yet available for all.
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