Letter from Vancouver: Sing-a-long-a-citizenship
It was 1.25 p.m. in a stuffy immigration courtroom overlooking Vancouver’s BC Place stadium and 80 assorted individuals had just had their passports stamped with the legend “No longer a permanent resident.”
A nightmare decree for many around the world, here it’s a cause for celebration. In around 30 minutes, each of us will be a fully-fledged Canadian citizen, able to effortlessly recite hockey statistics, down a dozen Tim Hortons doughnuts and deploy a myriad of choice profanities in place of the name George Bush, in either English or French.
But before attaining this nationalistic nirvana, all were waiting nervously in no-mans land — officially neither residents nor citizens — in a room resembling a bright, multi-use function hall in a modern evangelical church. Fittingly, most were wearing their Sunday best, although some were clad in fleece tops, the outfit of choice for even the most auspicious of occasions on British Columbia’s outdoorsy West Coast.
For me — a British expat about to swear allegiance to the Queen for the first time in his life — it couldn’t get much more surreal than this.
While there was a handful of elderly Europeans dotted around the room, almost everyone here was Chinese, chatting quietly in small groups, sitting alone staring at their O Canada anthem songsheets or wrestling with the kind of wriggling toddlers who can smell a potentially boring scenario from 50 paces. There was an occasional camera flash from the friends and family pen on the left side of the room and the air was rife with the kind of sweaty-palmed expectancy usually reserved for end-of-term exams.
That’s not an inappropriate feeling here because this was the room where each of us had previously sat our written citizenship tests. With multiple choice questions like “Who were the United Empire Loyalists?” and “What date did Nunavut become a territory?” cribbed from an official study guide apparently aimed at trivia-loving 10-year-olds, many questions nevertheless stumped most of the born-and-bred Canadians I later quizzed.
Now, with fierce debates over Manitoba’s manufacturing industries firmly behind us, today’s nervousness was all about the official ceremony. At 1.30 p.m., eyes flicked to the front of the room as a matronly, be-robed courtroom clerk appeared to inform us of the upcoming protocols and procedures. Within minutes, an elderly yet sprightly judge entered, striding to a small, raised stage to welcome us with a hearty “Good afternoon.”
Receiving only deferential mumbled replies, he said it again. On the third attempt, this jaunty wannabe game show host said he thought we were now excited enough to become Canadians. Switching to the careful, deliberate enunciation of a 1940s radio announcer for those still lacking English fluency, he asked us if we were ready to take the bilingual pledge. Finally, after a 12-month application process and periods of permanent residency that stretched back decades for many, we were about to display, in the words of our new anthem, “our true patriot love” by becoming real Canadians.
With each row standing in turn, our judge shifted to face every individual as he or she raised their right hand and recited “I” followed by their name. With all names heard, the next stage, like a Moonie mass-wedding, was for us all to follow the judge and repeat the full pledge together. Being officially a bilingual nation, the first version was in French, although it’s doubtful that any native French speaker would have recognized the pidgin version most of us spouted as we gamely followed the judge’s spoon-fed promptings. He helpfully cut some of the longer words into three sections, further mangling our shaky diction.
Confidence was quickly restored with the English version: “I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.” This was followed by the kind of relieved applause usually reserved for the completion of a complex piano recital. The hard part over, the near-Canadians were beginning to relax and smile to eachother.
We were then invited to file individually past the judge and receive our certificates; a colourful one-pager bearing the nation’s coat of arms and a pen-and-ink sketch of Canada’s parliament building in Ottawa. With the judge firmly grasping each hand and locking eyes for a final check into our new Canadian souls, we returned to out seats for the proceeding’s final act.
With a tinny recorded accompaniment, the judge led the crowd in a rousing (for him) and slightly nervous (for us) sing-a-long of our new national anthem. The final three lines — boomed out by our ever-beaming judge — were sung the loudest: “God keep our land glorious and free! O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
Another spontaneous round of applause ended the formal ceremony, as families lingered to shake hands with eachother and gather for photos with the judge. “There’s plenty of time for everyone,” he gently assured us, while in the corner of the room, the administration staff laid out new certificates on a large table: another mass citizenship pledge had to be squeezed in before the day’s end.