Adrienne Clarkson was Canada’s 26th Governor-General and co-founder of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
One of the most wonderful things about becoming a Canadian is the citizenship ceremony.
There, new citizens are surrounded by a little crowd of other people who want to become Canadian too. It might be held in a federal citizenship office or in some other location that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has found that can accommodate people, though at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, we try to hold our citizenship ceremonies in public spaces: libraries, city halls, university campuses, places we hope these new citizens will return to. Always, there is incredible joy – the kind that comes with recognizing that something special is happening. Wearing a head scarf or a beard, or an embroidered vest in brilliant colours, these about-to-become citizens know that they are doing something meaningful.
When I became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992, I was told that I would be able to preside over these ceremonies in the way a citizenship judge does. I was delighted by the idea: For my family and me, who arrived as stateless refugees during the Second World War, the precious gift of Canadian citizenship that we received in 1949 was something we cherished and celebrated.
The first ceremony over which I presided was overwhelming: there was such excitement and warmth among people of different backgrounds – even though the whole thing was taking place at the Metropolitan Toronto Police headquarters!
When my husband John Ralston Saul and I founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, one of the first things we wanted to do was to have special ceremonies to acknowledge how important this moment is in people’s lives. For six years, as Governor-General, I presided over citizenship ceremonies, and invited people who already had Canadian citizenship to come specifically to meet the new citizens, to sit at roundtables with them and have discussions before the formal ceremony. Everyone shared coffee and doughnuts afterward. It wasn’t elaborate, but it was congenial and hospitable.
When I left Rideau Hall, I decided that this would be a feature of the institute, and for 16 years we carried this on with the wisdom and guidance of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. With their help, we have ceremonies in which we have Indigenous speakers and music, and roundtables where people can share their experiences of Canada up to that point.
It’s not a big deal. But it is important. And everyone who is sworn in across the country as citizens recognizes that the others around them are people who, like them, have taken the risk of leaving their own country with the courage to come and make a new life in Canada.
We can’t overstate the significance of being able to be around each other when we take our citizenship vows, or of new citizens receiving the formal and yet warm welcome they get from professional and excellent Immigration officials, who leave no misunderstanding as to what a citizen is and how a citizen can contribute to their country. The citizenship judges, whether they are federal appointees or members of the Order of Canada, always take the ceremonies to heart, and it is so moving to see people from so many different countries at each ceremony joining together and saying that they will become part of Canada.
Now, there are reports that in order to get rid of an administrative backlog, new citizens will be given the option to take their oath online, rather than in a physical ceremony. Frankly, I’m horrified by this. I believe that people want ceremonies to mark important passages in their lives. I think welcoming people in person is the least we can do as a country. I feel that the people who work at the ministry understand that, and that they do put a human face on it as much as they can.
The idea that Canada, which is perhaps the most successful immigrant nation in the world, would resort to a machine-oriented way of saying that you are now a citizen, is egregious. In 2001, on my state visit to Germany as Governor-General, then-president Johannes Rau told me how deeply impressed he was that we inducted people into citizenship personally. He lamented the fact that Germany generally sent out citizenships by some form of registered mail.
I can’t help feeling very emotional when I talk about this, because I do believe that ceremonies are important stages of every human being’s life. There is a reason why we have birthday parties, for instance, or why co-workers often share a cake when someone leaves for another job. There is a reason why people go to city hall or to a religious institution to bring meaning to their marriage. There is humanity in marking milestones in each other’s company; it is the mark of a civilized society. And Canada should always think of itself as a society which not only knows how to welcome people, but shows that a personal welcome is only the beginning of belonging.