Learning to Think Like A Canadian

by Morgan Hite

Since Citizenship and Immigration Canada sent me notice to appear for my citizenship test, I have taken to reading aloud at dinner select facts from their study booklet. Entitled A Look At Canada, it is what one might think of as a beginner's manual for operating a parliamentary democracy. It tells you how it works, as in, "If the majority of MP's vote against a major government decision, the party in power is defeated." It also lays out a simplified account of the parts involved, as in, "B.C. is Canada's second largest producer of hydroelectric power."

There is furthermore a philosophical side to the thirty-seven page booklet, statements which qualify neither as explaining the political system nor familiarising one with Canada's vast domain. "Growth cannot come at the expense of the environment," I read from page six. "The Canadian government is committed to sustainable development."

My Canadian born-and-bred wife laughs dryly and comments, "Their idea of sustainability is that the politicians can keep sustaining their pocketbooks forever!" Her cynicism is typical of most people I have shown this book to, all Canadians who received their citizenship at birth. When I phone my Ontario in-laws to see if they know the six responsibilities of the citizen (e.g., obey Canada's laws, care for the environment), I provoke a festival of cynical mirth by reading to them that new citizens are enjoined to "Walk, join a car pool, or use a bicycle or public transit whenever possible."

But on the other hand-and this is where citizenship reveals its complex and interesting character-no one has turned to me and said, "You don't actually believe that stuff do you?" The ideals, such as the responsibilities of citizenship, are crucially important even if we all know they aren't realised in actual practice every day. In fact, the cynical responses I received were confirmation of just how dearly people would like to believe in the integrity of their politicians or the environmental consciences of their neighbours.

One of the most fascinating aspects of citizenship is that we who study for it share the country with those who were born with it. This reflects the historical fact that citizenship is not one, but three, concepts bundled together. If we think of ourselves as archaeologists looking for the ancient structure upon which the more modern building has been erected, we can examine these one by one.

Citizenship, in its lowest foundation, it is built upon the primordial idea of blood: you are accepted as Canadian if one of your parents was Canadian. In some countries this still is the only way to get citizenship, countries where nationality and genetics are assumed to be more or less the same thing. But built on top of this is a more recent layer, the democratic and earthy idea of soil: you are also accepted as Canadian if you are born geographically within Canada. Recently Germany expanded its definition of citizenship in this way. And built most recently of all atop the other two is a level based on the idea of affinity: you are accepted as Canadian if you can pass the test which shows you are willing to think like a Canadian, specifically about social and political ideals.

This is not to say that blood and soil are no longer appropriate ideas. In fact, it is the continued use of these strong images which give citizenship its numinous appeal and make it much more than membership in a club. When the majority of citizens stake their claim on parentage or place of birth, it gives citizenship a comforting basis in concrete, measurable fact, the way gold bars held by central banks used to underlie confidence in currencies.

Statistics indicate that in the year 2000 about 370,000 children will receive citizenship for being born in Canada or to Canadians abroad. Meanwhile 170,000 Landed Immigrants like me will become citizens by passing the quiz of twenty multiple-choice questions, of which we must correctly answer twelve (equivalent to getting a C- in a university course). But rather than confusing the issue of what citizenship means, it is my impression that having these simultaneous and different paths to acquire it gives great credibility to the resulting nation. A citizenry based solely on blood or soil or affinity would be less than the dynamic mix we get by having all three.

Which brings us back to cynicism, the normal response of a citizen-by-birth contemplating what a citizen-applicant has to memorise for the test. It's a healthy sign that people recognise that there's gap between what's practised and what's preached, that they are perhaps even a bit embarrassed about it in the presence of the would-be citizen. In fact, it is itself an element of what it means to think like a Canadian. Assuming I pass the test, I'm hoping to develop a little cynicism myself someday.

 © Copyright 2000, Morgan Hite