Citizenship at the Centre

I wrote yesterday about two significant Canadian anniversaries and neglected a fascinating third. On July 1st we’ll be celebrating the country’s 140th birthday, but it was only 60 years ago yesterday that the first formal Canadian citizenship was granted. (Pour maple syrup on absolutely everything if you can name the first citizen to be formally recognized as such. *Answer below.) I may have heard this before, but was still lightly startled nonetheless to be reminded that it was only in 1947, 80 years in to the Great Northern Experiment, that we were regarded technically as anything other than British subjects. Imagine how French Quebeckers felt about that, when the thought crossed their minds. Or the Chinese or Ukrainian immigrants. Or the Irish.

And so our blazingly attractive Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, herself an immigrant from Haiti, spoke to new citizens yesterday. They gathered in the halls of the Supreme Court, welcomed by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s frosted beauty and class. They came from all over Canada, and they came from all over the world – the usual Canadian story, at least for the last 40 years or so. Their smiles were wide, and their comments afterward were uplifting and sweet. But even 60 years on, as they followed Madame Jean in reciting their citizenship pledge, they said one jarring thing before promising to obey Canadian law and fulfil their duties as citizens. The Oath begins with the affirmation “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors…” I shuddered, just slightly, though there are elements of our civic structure that are much more harmful than this small anachronism. Yet symbols do matter.

I stand with those who suggest that quietly, upon the death of the Queen, in a dignified and quintessentially Canadian way, we should end the designation of the top British royal as our Head of State. There is value, however, in separating “pomp from power”, in having the symbolic head of the country distinct from the leader of the government. The institution of the Governor General fits this bill beautifully, and maintains valuable ties to traditions both deep and more recent. (We may need to revise our selection method, which despite its partisan potential has sent some marvellous Canadians to Rideau Hall, including but certainly not limited to the last two.)

Former GG Adrienne Clarkson, for whom I wrote during the last years of her mandate, was honoured Thursday at Rideau Hall with the unveiling of her official portrait. Prime Ministers past (Mr. Chrétien) and present (Mr. Harper) were there, along with most of the chief politicos of Ottawa, but more interesting to me were the artists and the throat-singing Inuit sisters; I’d never heard a live rendition of this eerie, sometimes guttural, viscerally powerful vocalizing before. I also got to hang out with my ol’ buddies and colleagues from the days when I left my house (and my sweatshirts) to go to work.

The Clarkson portrait is striking, a combination of nostalgia and toughness. She is calm and just a touch defiant, actually, as she stands on a frozen Canadian lake and stares down the horizon, or dares the future. It is the first vice-regal portrait to have snow in it. (Only in Canada, you say?) The warmth in it comes from a deep and sturdy friendship between Ms. Clarkson and the painter, Mary Pratt – the photo on which it was based was taken over 20 years ago – and also from the soft blue parka that she wears. I’d seen it (and that steely gaze) before. She has worn it since it was hand-made for her by an Inuit women’s collective thirty years ago, and she swears she always will.

It’s a good day to think a little about being a citizen. It reminds me that I need to flood our Tiny Perfect Backyard Rink® tonight, maybe just after seeing the legendary Willie P. Bennett and the ukulele wizard James Hill play their music tonight at the National Library and Archives. But first, a little Saturday afternoon hockey — good for the northern soul.

* And get those crèpes cooking if you somehow knew that Canada’s then-Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was the first official citizen of this evolving country on February 16, 1947.

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