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by Lynn MacNaughton
... on hearing my accent and noticing the colour of my skin, she automatically assumed that I was an illegal immigrant ...
What defines a person as Canadian? A popular answer is anything that isn't American. However, this definition is not much use to the newly landed immigrant unless he or she happens to be immigrating from below the 49th parallel. So when does an immigrant become a Canadian and how does an immigrant realize that this transformation has taken place?
Prior to my emigration from Britain, my knowledge of Canada was gleamed from two childhood holidays and selected stories from my father, who was born and raised in Colwood. Canada was a land of sweet-smelling, tall, tall trees; ferry rides, mountains, chewing gum and killer whales. It was where my father fell out of a tree (probably one of those tall, tall ones) and broke his ankle thereby rendering him, according to the Canadian army, unfit for military service. He then applied to the British army who took one look at him and signed him up on the spot. He spent the rest of his working life throwing himself out of airplanes (parachute attached) and landing forcefully on that same ankle that Canadian recruiters were so confidant wouldn't stand up to the rigors of Basic Training. However, the British army was so desperate for recruits in the early sixties that only the absence of a pulse prevent someone from joining. This is the reason that father left the lofty firs of Vancouver Island and went to England and why I was born and raised there.
I arrived in Canada in 1990 already possessing Canadian citizenship. My father registered me as such when I was but a few weeks' old - barely a month after Canada had thrown out the Union Jack and got itself its very own red maple leaf flag. Those were the good old days when Canadian citizenships were thrown around like confetti and the Reform party was just a twinkle in Preston Manning's eye. So legally speaking, as I stepped jet-lagged from the plane that late April afternoon, I was Canadian.
On my arrival I presented my Canadian passport to an immigrant official upon arrival. She was a young woman, early twenties and she looked professional and kind.
"Are you here on holiday?" she asked politely.
"No, I've come here to live," I replied. My befuddled, eight-hours-behind brain could only form simple sentences.
She smiled warmly. "Do you intend to work while you are in Canada?"
I told her that I did.
She smiled again, like a cat who has caught a particular tasty bird.
"In that case, you'll have to come along with me and speak to my supervisor."
Even in my jet-lagged state, I realized that this was not normal procedure.
"Why?" I asked. I was beginning to panic. I have given up a secure job and left my family and now I could see myself duly arrested and deport even before I have left the airport! "Do Canadian citizens need permission before they can work in Canada?" I asked, my voice quietly breaking.
The official, who had been flipping through my Canadian passport all this time, suddenly looked at the document in her hand.
"Oh," she said amazed to see the nationality of the passport. Now this woman must have looked at hundreds of Canadian passports every week and their shape, colour and texture being as familiar to her as the one dollar bill (which Canada still had in 1990). But on hearing my accent and noticing the colour of my skin, she automatically assumed that I was a illegal immigrant and a not particularly bright one at that.
I received no apology for her behaviour. She simply pushed my passport back at me and told me I was free to go.
This official was sure I wasn't a Canadian and culturally speaking she was right. Yes, I possessed the right paperwork yet I was unaware of certain Canadian realities.The names of Van der Zalm and Mulroney were, mercifully, unfamiliar to me, Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord were still constitutional amoebas in the Canadian political evolution process and the phrase `Distinct Society' still sounded quaint.
So when did I transmutate into that ill-defined creature: the Canadian? Over the past nine years there have been many milestones that have edged me closer. For instance, I thought I was Canadian when I learnt to say `Ottawa' with a sneer. Then I thought I was Canadian when I laughed on hearing Toronto described as a `world-class city'. I thought I was Canadian when I began to use the phrase, `The wacky, wacky world of BC politics' without irony. I thought I was Canadian when the phrase `Distinct Society' evoked in me intense and violent apathy. I thought I was Canadian when I knew who Gordie Howe was. I thought I was Canadian when a three hundred miles trip seemed nothing more than a Sunday afternoon drive. I thought I was Canadian I began to anticipate the jokes on `This Hour has Twenty-Two Minutes'. I thought was Canadian (and in particularly Victorian) when the word `tourist' became a synonym for `American'. And I thought I was Canadian when I learnt to sing O Canada out of tune and knew only half the words. But none of these things have made me completely Canadian. For twenty-five years my cultural identity was forged in the fierce furnace of British history, tempered by the hammer of the class system and cooled in the waters of the English countryside. Even after ten years of residence, I still think beer should be served warm, tea should be brewed in a pre-heated china pot and soccer should be called football. I guess I will always be a mixture of past and current identities - in essence an English-Canadian.
Lynn MacNaughton is a UVic writing student who knows the proper way to make a cup of tea.
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