Citizenship 101 

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Thirty-five new Canadians. Many family members. A few friends. Some officials. Ten tables. A room full of welcoming, hope, opportunity, arrival. The end of a long journey for most, the beginning of another for some. All gathered in the impressive and airy foyer of the Audain Art Museum where floor-to-ceiling windows provide the perfect wallpaper of a sun-drenched coastal forest. Welcome to Canada, fellow citizens.

Last week, 20 Whistlerites including myself had the honour of facilitating roundtable discussions with new Canadians prior to their official citizenship ceremony organized by the Institute of Canadian Citizenship and generously hosted by the Audain. This wonderful experience reaffirmed for me many key things about citizenship and democracy; it also restored some of my eroding faith in government with how well-organized and engaging it was.

People were randomly grouped around tables to introduce themselves and exchange stories about how and why they came to Canada, what it means to be Canadian, and how to practice active citizenship, including various forms of citizen engagement.

The discussions were lively and interesting—so many stories! So much laughter!—and fun to facilitate. At the end, one person from each table shared with the room a personal summary of their discussion. And it was these enthusiastic testimonies that really hit home.

First to speak was a man who moved to Toronto from Australia with his husband, ended up on the West Coast, and ultimately relocated to Whistler. Others, of course, talked of coming to Whistler for a season and staying for many, getting married, starting families. One girl said she had hoped coming to Canada would make her a better ski instructor, and it did, but it also made her a better person after experiencing and wanting to emulate Canadians' openness. All spoke of welcoming people, the environment, freedom from persecution, crime and military threats, and the Canadian penchant for apologizing. A woman originally from America largely seemed relieved.

The formal proceedings were opened and closed in Monty Python-esque manner by an RCMP officer in red serge. The citizenship oath itself was short but anachronistic, pledging allegiance to "the Queen of Canada." The presiding judge may have channeled unnecessary jingoism in calling Canada "the best country in the world," undermining the pluralistic mood, but Audain director Dr. Curtis Collins smoothed it over by articulating the experimental reality of celebrating cultural differences. "O Canada" was sang, little flags waved, and strangers hugged and shook hands with fellow new citizens.

Ultimately, it was stirring to hear from such a wide cross-section hailing from Australia, Chile, Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Iran, Syria, Thailand, Tibet, the U.K., the U.S., Venezuela, and elsewhere about what it means to not only become Canadian, but to be instantly embraced as one. To hear how grateful they are for the opportunity, and to sense from all who attended how grateful we are to have them. This is why citizenship matters. Why diversity matters. Why immigration matters. Why open arms matter. And, most importantly, why we need to ensure—now more than ever—this remains the case. 

That's because this crucible of goodwill, diversity and grassroots democracy is precisely what white nationalist and anti-immigration fringe groups would subtract from the Canadian experience, greatly impoverishing it. Make no mistake that such elements are gaining numbers and power here—emboldened in part by the failure of provincial and federal conservative parties to denounce and distance themselves for fear of offending what has clearly become an important segment of their base. And that should concern us all—including mainstream conservative voters who must demand their leaders stop dog-whistling, tolerating, and cozying up to such groups and individuals at anti-government protests and events.

This winter, for instance, conservative leaders across the country openly supported an ostensible "economic protest" by Yellow Vests Canada that provided unchallenged cover for racist elements.

The day before Whistler's citizenship ceremony, Facebook banned Canadian far-right political commentator Faith Goldy, white nationalist crusader Kevin Goudreau, and four groups actively promoting hate from all its platforms. This should send a loud warning to all of the current dangers posed to the ecology of Canadian democracy.

In the end, if citizenship ceremonies encourage new Canadians to participate in our democracy, then we, too, must heed the call. It's not enough to simply welcome people to the country; it's our duty to fight to defend the values we are products of, advocating strongly and unflinchingly for new Canadians to enjoy the same experience and privileges as those of us with the incredible good fortune to be born here.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.

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