One hundred and twenty five people, from thirty four countries, assembled at 8 a.m. in a courtroom in Mississauga yesterday to take the oath and receive their Canadian citizenship.
The presiding judge had come as a child as an immigrant from Pakistan; the clerk of the court was from Jamaica. Waiting to be sworn in were men, women and children, young and old, of every class, creed and colour, from Asia and Eurasia, Africa and Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
I was one of them, just one participant in a very humbling – and levelling – moment. For in that moment, it struck me forcefully, all of us were equal. No matter where we came from, what we did for a living, what kind of car we drove or house we lived in, all of us were simply citizens, of a new country, which we had made our home and which had welcomed us. It was democracy in action, in its simplest, most basic sense, and it was impossible not to be moved – by the journeys that people in that room had made to be here, by the spirit of welcome and acceptance, by one’s own personal journey and experience.
In my – our – case, that journey started just under ten years ago, when Rob and I met in South Africa, and began to take shape when she first broached the possibility of my applying for permanent residence in Canada. It was a generous, unconditional proposal: she would sponsor me, whether or not we remained together, so that I would have the choices and options that residence would bring. At that point we had known each other for only eight or nine months, so this was one helluva commitment. I agreed in principle, with gratitude, but no sense at that time how such a plan might be carried through in reality. Suffice it to say that five years later we were married, a year or so later I had taken up permanent residence in Canada, and now – think about this – I am Canadian citizen.
The story of how we got here would be enough, you would think, to make yesterday’s ceremony an emotional one, but there was another layer, also: the mixed emotions that I felt, as a committed South African, in taking on the citizenship of another country. It is an emotion that I imagine all immigrants and exiles must experience: the pull of home, the sense of what you are leaving behind, as well as the promise and anxiety of an uncertain future. In my case, I look back at South Africa with complex feelings, the stomach-churning brew compounded from the experience of having come to adulthood under apartheid, the joy and excitement, the huge potential, of liberation and democracy, combined with a terrible sense of pity and loss at what has gone wrong since. And yet, still, a sense of hope for the future, a belief that there are good and honest citizens – there it is, that word ‘citizen’ again – who will fight for and ultimately will win a brighter South African future.
I have retained my South African citizenship, it need hardly be said, and I hope to do more work in South Africa, not just for the work or the money’s sake, but because I feel the need and an obligation, still, to make a contribution. But I am enormously grateful to have been given the rights and privileges that come with being a Canadian citizen, not least the sense of being part of a peaceful, prosperous, law-abiding and tolerant democracy.
You will find it easy to imagine, when you read this, that yesterday’s ceremony moved me deeply; it was a deeply meaningful moment for both of us. After the ceremony, we embraced, and there were tears in Rob’s eyes and mine – too many emotions, too much to be said, to much too handle, in that room, amongst all those people. But we took the rest of the day off, spent the afternoon poking around the shops and galleries on Queen Street, and ended up with oysters and white wine at a favourite hangout, The Pearl Diver, near the Market. And there, over an early dinner, we talked and talked.