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What Canada Day means for me: an immigrant's view

La Loche Canada Day parade 2009. Photo by Kayoty. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When I was growing up in the U.S., Independence Day always felt aggressive with distinct military overtones. Like May Day in Russia, but in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts. Which stands to reason. It celebrates a declaration, written after the Revolutionary War had already begun, that sought to “dissolve political bonds” with Britain. So in a real sense the 4th of July celebrates war. It always has.

Not so Canada Day, which commemorates The Constitution Act, a peacetime document that “expressed … [a] Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” It was a request, not a declaration, and it sought to preserve and renegotiate a relationship, not to sever ties.

The first 4th of July I remember when I was five or six years old and led to believe that this was going to be fun. We ate hot dogs and ice cream. My older brother and sisters set off short strings of Chinese firecrackers. Jarring, but not too frightening. I was taught how to hold a sparkler. Innocent enough. But that evening, we piled into our station wagon to see the fireworks. The big ones.

Something about the heat, the oppressive humidity, the gathering dark, and the wild anticipation of a mob-like crowd made me wary. Then came the first light flashes and explosions: brighter, faster, louder, and louder. The crowd cheered. I screamed. “Isn’t this FUN?” my mother shouted. She thought I was getting into the spirit of the thing.

But I didn’t stop screaming. In fact I screamed and sobbed, fighting to regain my breath, until I was safely home and in bed.

Over the years, I adapted. I made an uneasy peace with Independence Day and liked spending the day at my uncle’s swimming pool. But I could never quite get used to the fireworks.

One 4th of July when I was in high school in the late 60s, I remember walking with friends to Washington University for fireworks I was hoping would be psychedelic. Along the way, we passed a drunken woman, yelling at passersby from her front porch. Her yard was covered in small American flags stuck into the ground. It looked like a cemetery.

Her son had just been killed in Vietnam.

I guess I always wondered exactly what we were supposed to be celebrating. Independence from tyranny. A military prowess that ensured freedom. But also, somehow, the terrible conformity of the melting pot, tinged with a growing contempt for anything seen as foreign. Immigrants beware.

My first Canada Day as a landed immigrant was a relief. I was made to feel welcome. Singing “O Canada” filled me with the kind of gratitude shipwreck survivors must feel when they kiss solid ground.

This Canada Day, my third as a citizen of this country, I’ll begin with the citizenship ceremony at Canada Place. That’s what Canada Day is about for me. Renewing my commitment to something that’s still difficult for me to define. Something about our role in the world as peacekeepers and mediators. Something about staying in relationship even when it gets difficult. Freedom yes, but not reckless abandon. Responsibility. Fairness. Decency. Good sense. A goofy humour. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

On Canada Day, we celebrate the great experiment of Federation, aware of the uncertainty of its success.

On Canada Day, I consider what it means to be Canadian—a mystery I will continue to unfold for the rest of my life.

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