The most welcoming nation on earth
Somewhere in my family’s archives are two pictures of me taken within the same year; one in an Irish dancing costume, the second in a Ukrainian one. That was the year my family emigrated from big-city Belfast to small-town Manitoba. My family’s story is like that of so many other Canadians: we came with our own history and traditions, and we worked hard to fit in with this new, multi-cultural society we had chosen. Years later, each of us has contributed in our own way to our adopted country.
I thought of those pictures this past month when our great CBABC staff came together to support a family of Syrian refugees. They had six children between the ages of four and 12. We decided as a group that what we could best offer was a start at helping the children integrate as smoothly as possible into the school year. We collected funds, books and materials, and created an amazing compilation of six beautiful backpacks full of school supplies, stuffed teddy bears and love. Past presidents, Council members and staff gave what they could. The pictures (see photo on page 23) and recounting we received of the backpacks being presented to the family were so poignant. It’s impossible to describe what it meant to all of us to be given that chance to help someone else feel welcomed here.
I mention our experience because we're in a time when Canadians are being asked to think hard about what it truly means to be a nation that historically welcomed immigrants. We are a young nation in so many ways, even if we tend to think differently at times and certainly our First Nations predecessors know that to be true. Many of us newcomers have been here for generations – the running joke in my house is that my Japanese-Canadian in-laws have been here 100 years longer than my white Anglo-Saxon family. But we’re all Canadians now. What makes our chosen country great – and strong – is that it did not ask its new citizens to denounce their heritage and history; it asked that we bring the best of whatever we had to make this country greater.
I was so proud when our CBA Immigration Section, for the third time since I’ve been at the CBA, offered to provide pro bono assistance to those seeking to immigrate here from a troubled area of the world. Many Syrian refugees have benefited from Canadian lawyers who have stepped forward to help with no expectation of compensation. What an amazing profession.
For the past decade, I have had the honour of speaking at citizenship ceremonies. I talk about the courageous choice my parents made, their desire to leave a conflict zone and make a better life for their children, and the depth of their sacrifice in leaving everything and everyone they knew behind. Throughout the room are always nodding heads and filled eyes, people recognizing their own stories in the retelling of mine.
As we talk and think about the issue of immigration these days, let’s remember that this isn’t just about numbers, labour or real estate. What we are talking about are people’s aspirations and lives. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate that as Canadians we are rich beyond measure despite – and perhaps because of – living in a crazily complex society that rightfully struggles with the challenges of integration and peaceable living with those who lived here before us and those different than ourselves. Let’s remember to view citizenship as a gift. Let’s welcome all those who come to this country, recognizing those who lived and travelled here before us, and take pride in being the most welcoming nation on earth.