Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.
I was recently at a gathering of more than 100 people from 40 countries. You might wonder if I attended a FIFA World Cup party, but you would be mistaken. Two to three times a month for the past few years, I make the drive from my office in downtown Toronto to a small strip mall in Mississauga to serve as presiding officer at a citizenship ceremony and welcome our newest Canadians. I am not a judge, nor a lawyer. I am granted this privilege since being awarded the Order of Canada in December, 2014. I have sworn in more than 2,500 new Canadians.
I hesitated when the offer to preside was initially extended, particularly upon learning I had to use my rudimentary French when speaking the oath. While my pronunciation is still not quite right, I took the risk and have been deeply rewarded. I have come to the realization that I benefit more from the ceremony than those I serve. My eyes are opened every time.
If you want to gain a deep appreciation of what it means to become a Canadian, attend a ceremony and meet our newest citizens and listen to their stories. Some met a Canadian while travelling, fell in love and now plan to make their life here. For others, they are joining extended family members who have already established roots. Others have been working here, employing their unique skills and love our country so much they decide to stay. Many have graduated from our great educational institutions and want to stay and contribute to high-tech companies or build businesses. Each story is unique and compelling.
Some arrive at the event in their work clothes, taking just enough time off to be sworn in and get a picture or two. A colleague, friend or family member may join them, but often they come alone. Their strong, calloused hands tell the story of a person working hard to build our country. Others acknowledge the significance of the event with a freshly pressed suit or colourful clothes from their country of origin, their children in matching outfits. The parents often mention the youngsters will be heading straight back to school after a celebratory lunch; they did not travel so far only to have the kids slack off!
My primary responsibilities are to communicate essential elements of what it means to join our family and administer the oath of citizenship. Our newest members hear about the history of our country and the central role of First Nations and Indigenous peoples. The need for reconciliation needs to be understood, so as they acknowledge Canada’s past, we can seek a better future. Equality, mobility and religious freedom are stressed. So is the importance of following the law.
The presiding officer is also given a moment to speak about their personal journey. Of course, many of the judges who preside are themselves immigrants to Canada and they can relate in a special way to those gathered in front of them. My story is somewhat different, as I was born in nearby Hamilton. I am not an immigrant, but I hope to tap into a common dream among many of those gathered, namely to offer a better life to their children or themselves through education.
My mother came from England with her family as a young girl and did not return to finish high school till she was in her 50s. She worked for nearly 50 years as a legal secretary, until her death at the age of 65. Her advice to me – and she was not prone to give it – was: Don’t waste your life. So I went to the University of Guelph intending to become a veterinarian, but one summer, Gordon Lange, a wonderful teacher and professor, gave me a chance to work in his chemistry-research lab. I took that opportunity and it changed my life. I have spent 31 years as a professor. Nearly 200 people have worked in my labs and now do research in companies and universities in 10 different countries.
After each ceremony, we take photos in front of the flags and people line up to capture this important event. Parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends all want to record the moment they became Canadians. Many want a photo with an RCMP officer in full dress uniform. I have been asked to hold babies, had my feet touched as a sign of respect and had my hand nearly crushed as our newest citizens thank me for swearing them in. Their joy at being Canadians is beyond words.
In the conversations that follow receipt of the citizenship certificate, many discuss their goals and dreams of a better life for their children. Our newest Canadians took diverse journeys to reach their goal and each is eager to make the most of the opportunity.