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Canada’s elaborate citizenship ceremonies would be indoctrination if held anywhere else

Lila MacLellan
Canadian citizenship ceremony is conducted at home of the NHL Ottawa Senators

Marie-Anne Manique and her husband were standing in line at a hockey arena in Canada’s capital city last February when they had to acknowledge a sense of mild dread.

“We said to each other, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing here?’” she recalled.

Her two children, ages 17 and 14, were likewise shy and jittery, preparing to be embarrassed. The family had been in Canada for five years, having left Mauritius in 2009, and was finally about to receive citizenship, alongside more than 180 others in Ottawa.

The Maniques and the other soon-to-be Canadians agreed to make this passage at an NHL game, where more than 10,000 fans had packed the arena to watch the hometown Senators face the Calgary Flames.

Manique wondered how the hockey crowd would react. They listened as an announcer’s booming voice told spectators the Senators were hosting “the largest citizenship ceremony in NHL his-tor-ee!” Cheering and whistling erupted.

The family walked onto the rink with their cohort (a red carpet was rolled out). The crowd stood, applauding, hollering, “Welcome to Canada!” Manique remembers. Her relief, joy, and sense of belonging became unforgettable.

“I’m talking as someone who applied to be a permanent resident to come to Canada,” Manique, who is bilingual and works for a francophone nonprofit in Ottawa, told Quartz. “But I’m sure there were people who came as refugees, too.” For them—applicants who may have been waiting a long time for processing and may have lived in camps for years—it must have been even more special, she thought. “I suppose being part of something like [the ceremony] should be twice as emotional.”

Her two kids later offered what qualifies as high praise from teenagers: “That was so nice.”

And yet one could also forgive an outsider for finding the whole scene a bit over the top, resembling a blatant form of indoctrination.

All races and a variety of religions were represented in the crowd of newcomers as they stood at the altar of Canada’s high sport. Fully suited players from both teams lined up on the ice, sticks and helmets in hand, shifting their weight from one skate to the other, as a local children’s choir sang “O Canada” in English and French. The staging could easily be read as a message about what mainstream Canadian culture looks like—and how they ought to assimilate.

That would be a misinterpretation, say experts who spoke to Quartz about these “special” citizenship ceremonies, which have been held at NHL and junior hockey games, soccer matches, and, once, on the CN Tower’s Edgewalk attraction in Toronto.

They say these productions are best understood as emblematic of the country’s genuine (if now shaky and complicated) support for progressive immigration policies and, for many Canadians, a celebration of their national identity as an immigrant-welcoming country.

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada told Quartz that the ministry isn’t even behind every one. Instead, the government is often approached by community groups or organizations because they want to show support for Canada. Or the dominant narrative about Canada, anyway.

The nation’s success with these hometown events—and what they symbolize—may hold lessons for countries around the globe where populism and xenophobia are taking hold, and where residents have come to see multiculturalism and integration as mutually exclusive.

Citizens are “immigrants with seniority”

Canada is not the only country where citizenship ceremonies can be goosebump inducing. In the US, around the Fourth of July and Constitution Week in September, naturalization ceremonies are held in national parks or on baseball fields before games. In many other countries, though, there are no ceremonies. Citizenship, if it’s granted to foreign applicants at all, is a matter of paperwork that arrives in the mail.

Not all ceremonies in Canada are notable—the more elaborate ceremonies represent about 15% of the 2,000 naturalizations held annually. But when they’re special they’re special. You could say next level. In the CN Tower event last October, six people in crimson jumpsuits and body harnesses were made Canadian while leaning backward tethered over an outdoor ledge nearly 1,200 feet high. Immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, who moved to the country as a refugee from Somali when he was a teen—also literally roped in—stood a safe distance away from the edge.

 

“That is quite bizarre,” said Bridget Byrne, a professor of sociology at England’s University of Manchester who has studied naturalization ceremonies around the world.

When Byrne researched her 2014 book, none of Canada’s events involved the possibility of plunging spectacularly to one’s death. Yet she doesn’t find it preposterous. One of the takeaways from her work: Canada’s enthusiasm for immigration felt more sincere than it did in other places.

Every nation presents an uncomplicated version of its story during these rituals, she says. They’re bound to be self-congratulatory and uncritical. Some would say melodramatic and kitschy. However, the claims in Canada are also less inauthentic than other places, Byrne argues, like the UK, where “narratives around immigration are much more ambivalent.”

Citizenship swearing-ins have only been held in her native Britain since 2004. They’re “an awkward combination of the ceremonial, which the British like to do and they do quite well,” and the “half-hearted, held in dusty town halls,” Byrne says. Canada’s functions, even the everyday ones staged in immigration offices across the country, often feature local organizations that come to celebrate and publicize their services. And Canada, she says, compared to the US or Britain, “has much better wraparound care provided for you as an immigrant.”

That difference heightens emotions at Canada’s ceremonies, according to Naomi Alboim, a distinguished fellow at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Ever since the country’s citizenship act was established in 1946—before which Canadians were British subjects—the government has seen immigration as a form of nation building, she says. The emphasis on citizenship comes naturally: “With the immigrants that are selected to come to Canada, the intent was always that they become citizens and that they remain in the country.”

“Immigrants are seen as citizens-in-waiting,” she adds, “or citizens are seen as immigrants with seniority.”

Newcomers are supported through programs that make staying easier. They’re given free training in one of the official languages so they can find jobs and they can take classes to help them pass the citizenship tests.

Alboim, who previously worked in immigration affairs for federal and provincial ministries, says ceremonies at iconic venues serve a dual purpose. The government wants to celebrate the value of citizenship for those who have made that choice. And for current Canadians, the government wants to impart a sense of pride.

The stubborn 30% you rarely hear about

Some oft-cited statistics support Canada’s welcoming “mosaic” character. Though the US has the highest number of immigrants in the world, the percentage of the population who are immigrants is much higher in Canada—21% versus 14%. What’s more, although it’s complicated to compare diversity data (which might be measured by ethnicity, race, or visible minority status, and by languages spoken), two outside analyses that combined several such factors have found Canada and Mexico more ethnically diverse than the US, as the Washington Post noted in 2013.

However, there are Canadian attitudes toward immigration that are often left out of the popular narrative.

As recently as the 1990s, for instance, about two-thirds of Canadians believed too many immigrants were coming to the country. By 2003, public sentiment—outside Quebec, at least—had swung the other way. The majority of Canadians said at that time they disagreed that too many immigrants were moving in, says Keith Banting, a Queen’s University political science professor. Since then, support for accepting newcomers in Canada has steadily grown. (This history is not dramatically different from US trends.)

Through all those decades, however, there has always been a strong minority of Canadians who feel the country is too tolerant of other cultures, and that they “threaten Canadian values,” his research shows. This group, which opposes immigration, has remained steady at about 30% to 40% of the population, and at certain times in history, they become more vocal.

Now is one of those times. Last year, a politician who failed to win the leadership of the mainstream Conservative party formed a fringe political organization called the People’s Party of Canada, which takes aim at immigration policies and “extreme multiculturalism.” It has named candidates for parliamentary seats across the country ahead of this fall’s federal election.

Public support for current immigration levels seems to be slipping in surveys, too.

Some critics argue that Canada’s image as a welcoming harbor has been built on a myth, anyway. If most Canadians have had few concerns about immigration, it may be because the government’s processing of new arrivals has always been orderly and policed. Past immigration policies have been blatantly racist, and current visa requirements for those from developing countries are also among the world’s most restrictive. What’s more, thanks to its geography, Canada’s borders are rarely crossed by disenfranchised migrants seeking asylum. Most of its immigrants are selected on a merit-based system.

Meanwhile, casting Canada as extremely tolerant and diverse is also attacked as overly generous, considering documented evidence of intolerance and barriers to people of color in the country, and its abhorrent treatment of its indigenous peoples, past and present.

“I don’t think Canada should be seen as a multicultural paradise. I think it’s more supportive than most countries, perhaps more supportive than all countries,” Banting says, but it’s still got “all the complexities” that you find anywhere else.

Undeniably, however, a less-nuanced story of a multi-ethnic and multi-hued Canada has prevailed. It was visible most recently during the recent NBA championship finals when the New York Times noted the diversity of Toronto Raptors fans. The team’s chief admirer, a Sikh sexagenarian immigrant who pays to send less-privileged kids to Raptors games, became a national hero.

And this version of Canada’s story is not completely fabricated, either.

When surveys ask Canadians what they most like about their country, Alboim tells Quartz—after universal healthcare—multiculturalism always ranks “way up there.”

It starts with the government

In a recent CBC interview exploring how Canada came to be an officially multicultural country, Banting traced the origins of the ethos that grew out of post-World War II society. Liberal democracies were moving away from the narrow nationalism that led to global conflict and suffering, he explained. And in Canada, that trend was filtered through a specific context—the need to appease Quebec separatists.

In the late 1960s, prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the late Liberal leader who was the father of prime minister Justin Trudeau, strengthened laws to protect the French Canadian language and culture. That didn’t sit well with Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish Canadians, and others, who rejected the image of a French and English country. “They said, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t see ourselves in that definition of Canada,’” Banting told CBC.

So, in 1971, Trudeau declared that the country would not see itself as dominated by any one culture. “Canada moved to a conception of itself, or certainly the Liberal government articulated a conception of Canada, which said we are a bilingual country, but we are multicultural Canada,” Banting said.

More than a decade later, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom was enacted, referencing Canada’s multicultural dimension. Six years later, the ruling Conservative government enacted the Multiculturalism Act, which led to several other policies, all of which made it official: There are many ways of being Canadian.

“You are now as officially Canadian as hockey itself,” the NHL announcer said when the anthem ended.

As a result of these new policies, the mandate for public broadcasters now includes the requirement that they represent a diverse Canada. “It explicitly says that given the diversity of the country, all your programming shouldn’t be about, you know, white, historic English speaking people,” Banting tells Quartz, adding that complaints can draw penalties from regulators.

Canada’s version of multiculturalism also evolved to put the onus on Canada itself to “change the mainstream institutions to make it easier for people of various backgrounds or religions, etc., to participate, without surrendering their entire background,” he says. For this reason, Canada allows dual citizenship (though it’s hardly alone in that.) It’s also why—after a contentious debate in the 1980s— it was decided that Sikh officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would be allowed to wear a turban, instead of the traditional Stetson.

“You could call this symbolic, but it is implicitly a way of saying you can participate in some of the most historic, traditional aspects of our society, without giving up everything of who you are,” Banting told Quartz. If it was easier to install this understanding in Canada, it may be because having one single identity was “always off the table,” he adds, which wasn’t as true in the US, and even less so in European countries.

Banting argues that Canada continued to evolve as it has, at least as much because of government policy as grassroots efforts. On the issue of turbans in the Mounted Police, he points out, “If [the government] had waited until there was a nice consensus bubbling up from below, it would have waited a long time.”

Holding a show-stopping citizenship ceremony at a hockey game, he says, is consistent with a government tradition “to build a conception of the country and maybe inculcate it.”

What are ceremonies for, anyway?

The NHL announcer at Manique’s ceremony ended the event by congratulating all of the new citizens, exclaiming: “You are now as officially Canadian as hockey itself!”

It’s the kind of rich, revealing statement sociologists would want to deconstruct. However, scholars have paid little attention to the curious traditions of citizenship ceremonies and what they signal about how a nation sees itself or what citizenship means. Byrne believes everyone should be paying more attention.

Immigration minister Ahmed Hussen at a special, obviously sweet, ceremony.

Indeed, she questions the value of taking a vow of citizenship, precisely because it’s not something that’s asked of native-born nationals. The implication is that people who take an oath could have their citizenship revoked if they break their vow, she says. Losing one’s citizenship is usually impossible—or at least rare—for those born into it.

The question of whether the semi-staged, uplifting functions are justified at all is also unsettled in her mind.

“I think I have problems imagining the perfect ceremony,” she said. “People’s responses to getting citizenship are so diverse. For some people, a big ceremony is an appropriate marking of a really important sense of the end of a journey and a shift in identity. They really mean something to them, and for others it feels very administrative.”

It’s unlikely that the unexamined rituals will change much, which is fine for someone like Manique, who says she can’t say a bad word about the ceremony, or Canada, except for the winter weather—which her new passport will allow her to escape.

 

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