Accidental Citizen

For my family and I, I will always be grateful to the country of Canada, because in every sense of the word it saved our lives. Canada as a nation has a long history of colonialism and genocide just like the US, we won’t gloss over that, but like any place there’s a lot more to the country than just its dark side.

In 2003, Chris and I were living in Northampton, Massachusetts when he decided to apply to a fine arts graduate program in Vancouver. When he got in, we went, stopping off on the way in California to get married. We planned to stay in Vancouver for the two-year duration and then return to Northampton. If we were lucky, while in Vancouver we’d have a baby. That would be a bonus. The kid could be a dual citizen, and the provincial medical system would actually pay for a midwife –crazy!

As it turned out, I did get pregnant and we did have a baby halfway through our second year in Vancouver, but nothing else went as planned. Far beyond paying for the midwife, the medical system paid for five days in the hospital for me, five eventful months in the NICU for Asa, and a whole lot more beyond that. It’s pretty unfathomable to me, and at a loss for anything better, I’m just supremely grateful.

Once we knew we were in deep (long-term medical) trouble, Chris and I extended our visas and eventually applied for permanent residence. Asa was almost three when we were granted that status, and it was an incredible relief. There was no such thing as Obamacare yet and if we’d had to return to the US with a child with high-level pre-existing medical needs we would have been in real jeopardy.

That was a great day. We drove to the border where an agent could issue the next set of papers, and we signed on the dotted lines.

“So this is just for you guys,” the border agent said, looking from us to Asa. “The kid is already ours.”

The border agent then welcomed us to Canada as permanent residents and we celebrated by going home and going to bed. Our future, and whether or not we would return to the US was all up in the air, and dependent on how Asa’s medical issues developed, as in, if they resolved or continued. Luckily for us those issues did resolve, but it took about eight more years, and by then we were well established in our life in Canada, with no plans to return to the US other than for visits.

Up until recently, neither Chris nor I gave much thought to applying for Canadian citizenship. Becoming permanent residents was a monstrous exercise in paperwork, and expensive, and we didn’t have a whole lot to gain from citizenship, it seemed, besides the right to vote. Then came the 2016 US presidential election, and we were just as blind-sided as everyone else who didn’t see it coming. Two days later, still in a state of shock and horror, I decided the time had come to apply. Neither Chris nor I supposed such anti-immigrant fervor would affect Canadian politics, but after the unthinkable happened it made anything seem possible. We were essentially green card holders, and I suddenly wanted more protection than that.

Going from permanent resident to citizen, I learned, was far easier than going from visitor to permanent resident. In two weeks I had the application together, sent it off, and started studying for the citizenship test. My short-term memory these days is like old Velcro, I knew I would need to study the factoids of Canadian history, government, geography, etc. about a thousand times each to get them to stick. Sooner than we expected, five months later, we got the call to appear to present our documents, and take the test. We passed.

I wondered if becoming Canadian citizens would do something to my identity. Being an American expat in Canada is a far more subtle way to be an expat than many other mixes, but the differences definitely exist. Here in British Columbia I’ve often felt like a yodeling, swearing cowboy crashing an English garden party. After screeching, “Howdy Pardners!” I’ve looked down at my dusty, sweaty chaps and felt very out of place. Being Jewish and American can make you friendly and/or outspoken in ways that can really get you in trouble around here.

The last in our series of visas we had before the permanent residence status came through was a student visa for me, and to get that I enrolled in a several-month-long certification program in interpreting at Vancouver Community College. Of the approximately 30 students, and several instructors, just about everyone was an immigrant or first-generation Canadian. The only exception were two mouthy, middle-aged Québécoises. As far as I can tell, Francophone people are say-what’s-on-your-mind people. My kind of people. All in all, our group of language-geeks represented seven languages other than English. That was a really good party. I felt very at home.

In general, I, and by extension my family, have tended to connect most with other “others”–Jews, immigrants from the US and elsewhere, first-generation Canadians and queer folks. Nothing has ever made me feel more culturally American–as in how being American has shaped me personally–than being outside of my own country, in Canada or elsewhere. Still, after 14 years here, a lot of Canadian stuff has seeped in. Having grown up in hippie Northern California, I don’t think I know much about being patriotic. I don’t know what allegiance means when you’re at odds with the policies of your government. Politically there’s a lot to be at odds with here in Canada, just like in the US, as I mentioned before. At the same time, it’s incredibly humbling to be allowed to live here. Canada owed us nothing, yet it opened its doors and gave us a safe place to live. That’s no small thing. And in this era, when millions in the world are refugees, it’s one of the biggest privileges there is.

Last week, on January 31st, 2018, Chris and I sat in an auditorium, on Songhees and Esquimalt land (downtown Victoria), with 126 other new Canadians, representing 30 different countries. We sat before a stage of local dignitaries, including two fully uniformed Mounties, and took the Oath of Citizenship in English and in French, sang the anthem, and were welcomed with thoughtful words on what it means to be an engaged citizen. Row by row we lined up to walk across the stage, shake hands (the kids got high fives) and receive our certificates of citizenship. Then, after the conclusion of the ceremony, the auditorium and lobby turned into a massive photo shoot.

It was part birth, part graduation, part marriage and part induction, and the feelings I took with me to bed that night lay in my heart like notes of music with sharp edges. In our time of crisis, my family was taken in by strangers, and after all these years, and surrounded by friends, this is our home. Now Chris and Asa and I share all our nationalities: Americans still, but Canadians too, eh? And most grateful for it.

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