On an early winter evening in the bottomlands of Toronto’s untamed River Don, 70 would-be Canadians file into a blinding bright conference room and take their seats in the alphabetical order of their mutually incomprehensible names. Outside, a first frosting has rendered this quadrant of the city even more picturesque than usual. The coatracks are crammed like Tokyo commuters; overshoes slump limply on the floor.
The 70 are to take the Oath of Citizenship, pledging allegiance to the woman in England—and her lovelorn son and his son and so forth forever—who still embodies the vast, infant Canadian state. In front of the oath-takers, a speaker’s podium has been set up, and there is a small desk on which are piled the certifying documents, emblazoned with lion and Unicom, that each new citizen will receive. I’m a little nervous, my throat a bit dry. I am one of the 70.
Now the clerk of the court comes out, a tall, energetic woman in billowing robes, dashing around like a refugee claimant from the cast of Sister Act 2. The ceremony will begin soon, she announces. When the oath has been sworn, she instructs, we new Canadians are to proceed from our seats in a seamless serpentine to shake the hand of the presiding judge and then, doing a single axel in front of the podium, we are to return immediately to our assigned chairs. All of this is to be accomplished swiftly, to leave more time for speeches.
Photography is permitted, the clerk says, but not during the swearing of the oath itself. This act, it seems, is as sacred as the fox dance of the British Columbia Musqueam, and snapshots would defile the affair. But Beta cameramen fromjocal television stations are here, and they will roll right over the taboo, and no one will complain or try to halt them.
Allan Fotheringham is on assignment.
Disparate worlds collide as people from every corner of the earth collect to pledge their allegiance to a new home
It is International Human Rights Week, so the ceremony is to include more ceremony than usual. Decorated dignitaries from various ethnic communities of Metro Toronto have been invited to witness the swearing-in and then—it is a lovely touch— they are to reaffirm their own loyalty to Crown and Canada by taking the oath themselves. A red-coat Mountie stands at crisp attention, and officers of the Canadian Jewish Congress warmly greet each immigrant family. It is they who are hosting this group naturalization, here at their modern headquarters in this snowbound suburban vale.
I study my fellow foreigners as they arrive, and I try to guess which ones are war orphans and day laborers and entrepreneurs, and which ones are gangsters and welfare cheats. Tonight’s new Canadians, we are informed, have come from 27 countries, borne by the strange and sweeping currents of life to unite, for this brief instant, in the saying of 43 words. Then, we will scatter into the infinite city, to meet again in fear or fellowship only at bus shelters, and some other less Toronto-centric place. But around me now, as the presiding judge arrives and the crowd-
ed room falls to a hush, I see the faces I have faced as a foreign correspondent in the refugee camps of Kurdistan, the back alleys of Havana, the cages in Hong Kong that hold escaped Vietnamese. It is a swirling sensation—that I have been sent from this city to their worlds and now their worlds have joined with mine.
(An hour earlier, I had thought: this is the night I finally leave Brooklyn, my home town, behind me. But then, my wife and I had jumped into a taxi to make the ceremony on time and it had been outfitted with a bulletproof partition between driver and passenger, an emblem of the new urban Canada. No one spoke; I stared glumly at the snow. Brooklyn had followed me north.)
The presiding judge greets us. An immigrant herself from some European duchy, I cannot locate her accent—Latvia? Luxembourg?—she has performed this procedure manifold times but her voice still swells with proud anticipation. We are gaining a new country, she tells us. The gifts of this land will be limited only by the capacity of our hearts.
We stand at the clerk’s command and begin the affirmation, some of us mumbling, some nearly shouting, others utterly lost in the antiquated Anglophile creed (“I will be faithful and bear true allegiance ...”). The cameras are on us. We will observe the laws of Canada, we utter. We will fulfil our duties. We will remain standing and do it all over again, says the presiding judge—in French.
The slow parade to the podium begins. I clasp the judge’s hand, receive my Commemoration of Canadian Citizenship. Now, the Canadians who have been citizens for longer than six minutes are invited to restate their vows. In the Peanut Gallery to my right, I see my Canadian wife with her right hand raised, serenely chanting along. But I am already contemplating the fruits of by neonate heritage: seats on royal commissions; diplomatic postings to warm, benign republics; poets’ allowances; jury duty. Shaking me from this reverie, 0 Canada begins, sung by two young stars of Miss Saigon.
The ceremony is over. We take our coats and re-enter the intemperate night. Shivering, our teeth playing marimba melodies, we give up on the bus after a couple of minutes and hail another cab. I slide in, expecting more anticrime plastic, more mistrust, more silence.
Instead there is a slim, blushing Arab in the driver’s seat and a giggling Chinese woman right beside him. They both are in their 20s, lost in laughter. Turning east on Sheppard, skating sideways on the pond, the pilot turns around to shake my hand and to introduce his companion.
“Don’t be afraid,” the driver says. “This is my girlfriend.”
“Congratulations!” I tell him. I’m thinking: Maybe this place can work.
Allen Abel is a reporter with CBC’s Prime Time News and a Canadian citizen.
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