Straddling the 49th Parallel July 1, 2016


As we entered the restaurant, my friend visiting from California started giggling. Then laughing. A little too loudly, actually.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“That,” she said, pointing to a plaque on the wall: “It would be our pleasure to seat you.

I must have looked confused.

“You Canadians are so polite! In the states it would say, ‘Wait here!‘” She proceeded to take a photo.

Okay, okay… Truth time. I wasn’t actually a Canadian when my friend visited all those years ago, and I can’t remember whether she really took a picture. And, in fairness, I’ve seen signs saying “Please wait to be seated,” on both sides of the boarder.

I’m thinking about this on Canada Day- a pretty great Canada Day for me.

We are in the Caribou region of BC at Mike’s family’s cabin. Dozens and dozens of family and friends, kids, and dogs are camped out on the property. I’m on the deck, admiring a rainbow which has suddenly appeared over the little red barn.

We’ve spent many Canada Day weekends here, but this one is different because in March of this year, I became a Canadian citizen. Oh, I’m still American, too. But now, in addition to the joy of filing two sets of tax returns, I can carry two passports and be suitabley embarrassed by the politics of both countries. In this regard, the US is trumping Canada at the moment. (Sorry I can’t resist a good pun.) Unfortunately, it’s true that many of us Americans are feeling more embarrassed than usual these days.

There was nothing embarrassing about my Canadian citizenship ceremony, though. If you’ve never attended one, you should. Mine was something called an “enhanced ceremony.” To begin with, about 70 of us immigrants sat with our families and friends around tables in a banquet hall. Volunteer facilitators at each table steered conversations around questions like, What does it mean to be Canadian? What do you think you will contribute? What sets Canada apart?

I was asked if it would be okay if Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, sat beside me. Of course! Intelligent and engaging, she easily joined the discussion. Later, one person from each table stood and briefly summarized their Canadian conversations.

Although I was disappointed that not one table mentioned the spelling of the word colour, the last letter of the alphabet (X-Y-Zed), or our ultra-polite Canadian restaurant signs, other themes emerged.  Safety. Diversity. Acknowledging mistakes and striving for betterment. Respect for people with disabilities. Respect for different cultures. Respect for women.

One man told us that if any of us were walking down the street in his birth country, we would stand out and, sadly, we would be ostracized. He was afraid he would encounter the same when he came to Canada. Instead, when he walked down his first Canadian street, he realized he fit in- because in Canada we are all different.

A woman explained that in her birth country, women need to cover their hair in public. After moving to Canada, she wrote to her mother, “This is the first time as a grown woman I have felt the wind in my hair…”

After quite a number of pride-filled speeches from us immigrants, we moved into the auditorium for the formal ceremony where we promised to be faithful to the queen and, in general terms, swore to use our Canadian-ness for good and not evil.

Some pretty important people were there. Deborah Grey (former MP and federal party leader), presided over the ceremony. Elizabeth May (MP and leader of Canada’s Green Party) and Lisa Helps, (Mayor of Victoria and my table neighbour 20 minutes earlier) gave equally inspiring speeches. And finally, the Governor-General’s Award winning poet, Lorna Crozier, read us a beautiful poem she composed for us new Canadians. Ms. Grey and Ms Crozier both wore the six pointed snowflake of the Order of Canada.

Having one foot on either side of the 49th parallel does make you think. What are US ceremonies like? Do they speak of respect and diversity? Do local and federal politicians welcome and inspire new citizens? Do nationally recognized poets write a special piece just for new Americans?

After all the paperwork and applications, tests and screening, we new citizens felt Canada was just as honoured to have us as we were to be granted citizenship. Do new citizens of the US feel this way?

I hope they do, but fear they don’t. What a strange experience it must be to wake up in your adopted country and learn that your neighbour supports a candidate who is disrespectful to women, who wants to build a wall along the Mexican boarder, and who thinks Muslims should register with the government. And then to learn that it’s not just your neighbour, but your dentist, your mechanic, or maybe your child’s teacher.

As a new Canadian, I’m proud of my neighbours who have welcomed Syrian refugees into their homes. Maybe my Californian friend was right to associate that plaque in the restaurant with the culture of a nation. Welcome to Canada: It would be our pleasure to seat you.

There is another plaque, one inside the Statue of Liberty, and it reads in part,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As an American, I’ve always been so proud of this. This is what it should mean to make America great again. But I’m worried. Sadly, these days, it’s just a little too easy to imagine an entirely different plaque at the Statue of Liberty. One that says, “Wait here.”

September 12 addendum: last weekend I met a man from Ontario who now lives in Alabama and has added a US citizenship to his Canadain. In fairness, I must report that he and his spouse were both impressed by the US citizenship ceremony and described it as incredibly moving. Perhaps someday I’ll have the chance to attend one. In the mean time, if anyone has attended both, I would be interested to know your thoughts.