In the 1990s, for people like myself, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, there was an expression that people used to talk about their feelings about their transition to their new home. Have you become “accustomed” to Canada? Was it easy to get “accustomed” to Canada?
At the time, I thought it was easy to tell whether I had become accustomed to Canada. When it was 15C outside, I knew that in Canada, you put on a t-shirt and told your friends how great it was that it was summer again, unlike in Hong Kong, where you put on a parka and complain about how cold it was. I learned that hockey was important and that you should know who the captain of your local NHL franchise was. (And that if it was the Maple Leafs, it was proper to have a love-hate relationship toward them, and harbour nostalgic feelings about the 1967 Stanley Cup.) I learned to speak English like a Canadian (though it would have been French if we had moved to another part of the country). I learned about how often you should mow the lawn so that the neighbours do not get upset at you. I learned to sing “O Canada”, I learned about the different political institutions of the country, the names of the party leaders, the capitals of the provinces.
And then a little more than three years later, I put my hand on a Bible and swore allegiance to the Queen, this country, and its laws, and I was a citizen. It seemed to me to be beyond doubt that at that point, I had become accustomed to Canada.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its Calls to Action (#93 and #94) issued a year ago, called for the inclusion of the history of the Indigenous-settler relationship in the education process for new citizens, and for a new citizenship oath that included a pledge to observe the Treaties with Indigenous Peoples.
The Trudeau government pledged during the election campaign that all 94 Calls to Action would be implemented, but #93 and #94 have yet to become reality.
Speaking from my own perspective as an immigrant, the TRC’s Calls to Action as they relate to New Canadians would be a welcome change.
Others, such as John Ralston Saul, have written eloquently about how Canada’s welcoming attitude toward new immigrants is a borrowing of the approach that Indigenous peoples practiced in welcoming European settlers. Canadians are rightly proud of how well this country has done in letting a diverse array of newcomers feel at home in this land. This tradition dates at least as far back as the Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and as an immigrant, I feel honoured to be explicitly invited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to join in the treaty relationship in a citizenship oath.
As I understand it, such a relationship would be a deeper and more meaningful way of getting accustomed to Canada than merely knowing about the provinces and their capitals, knowing the rules of hockey, or swearing allegiance to the Queen. The history of this country, and the history of its many meaningful relationships, go further in the past, beyond Confederation in 1867. The Treaties are part and parcel of our history. Confederation did not just appear out of thin air and create a new country – a whole web of relationships predate it and those relationships continue to make it the success that it is.
As immigrants on arrival to a new country, we expect to have to make adjustments to our way of life to fit in with the society that we have joined. It would be entirely normal, for instance, for us to expect to be taught an Indigenous language in public school alongside English. It would be entirely expected for an immigrant like myself to have learned when coming here that Indigenous harvesting rights are specially protected by law, and that Indigenous sacred places deserve special respect. In many ways, it is easier for new immigrants to recognize the reality of Indigenous presence than it is for those of us settlers who have been here a long time and have become habituated to the colonial system. Making an education in Indigenous realities a part of the process for immigrants to become citizens of Canada can make the reconciliation process between Indigenous people and settlers much smoother going forward.
As I have been taught, the treaty relationship is an ongoing one. There is much work us settlers have to make sure we have right relationships with our Indigenous neighbours. But being invited to the Treaty relationship is an incredibly empowering step. Many of us immigrants left our homelands because we did not like the idea of living under authoritarian political systems. The last thing we would want to do in our new country is to be in this land against the will of our Indigenous neighbours. The treaty relationship is an invitation for us to live respectful relationships with our Indigenous neighbours, and be here on this land with their consent.
When we are able to do that, we will truly have become accustomed to Canada.
By Senwung Luk