What it means to be Canadian

In a word

Hope, richness, belonging, open. These are a few of the words some naturalized citizens from across Toronto used to describe their feelings about Canada and their citizenship.

To celebrate Canada Day the Star profiled 10 naturalized citizens, representing 10 different countries. Some were refugees; others came as immigrants. Some have been here for decades; others are newly arrived.

But they all share a common love for the freedom Canada has guaranteed them and the security their citizenship has given them. They place great value on their Canadian citizenship and it has deep meaning for them.

Click on the images to hear their answers.

From Pakistan

Aisha Daanish, 42, laughed as she recalled how she missed Canada when she went back to Karachi, Pakistan to visit family and friends only a year after she first arrived.

It was an odd and surprising reaction, she confessed. She had spent most of her life in Pakistan. Yet, here she was back in her native land and all she did was miss Canada.

She chose the word warmth to describe a country that has some of the bitterest winters on the planet. But it isn’t the temperature that she’s referring to, but rather the warmth in people’s hearts.

In Pakistan, Daanish, a kindergarten teaching assistant in a private faith-based school in Mississauga, realized it was that warmth she was missing; craving. Even the tiniest gestures of friendship, such as a neighbor advising her and her children to dress warm on a crisp fall day, made her feel she was part of the fabric of the country.

“That really touched me because that’s what Grandmas used to do in my country of origin,” she said, explaining she doesn’t feel she can call Pakistan her home anymore. “This is home now so there has to be another word other than back home.”

From Sri Lanka

Tolerance is the word Keren Stephen chose to represent her feelings about Canada.

“We are mindful,” she said of Canadians. “There is a reluctance to succeed at any cost here. And I guess the whole culture is one of tolerance and including people.

“I like Canada. I like its values. It’s amazing the amount of volunteerism that goes on here.”

The 50-year-old chartered global management accountant came to Canada in 2009 along with her brother, his wife and two nieces from Sri Lanka. They left because of the violence.

“Being in a war area there’s so much activity,” she said. “There’s so much negative. Even if you’re not personally suffering, you hear about others suffering. I was affected, but not directly. You’re living in a war. There is fear, risks.”

After travelling the world for business, she settled on Canada after ruling out the United Kingdom and Australia. “I had heard good things about Canada…One of the key things is values…Canada is a very inclusive country. I wanted to form my home base here.”

She got her Canadian citizenship in November, 2013. And it was momentous. “It was the final signing off,” she explained. “That’s it. You’re there now. You’re a citizen and have obligations. It also gave me the feeling that I can really behave like a citizen…I can call myself a Canadian.”

From Rwanda
Sandrina Ntamwemezi was only five when the genocide ripped apart Rwanda. She has vague memories of the tragedy, mostly associated with feelings of panic.

But today after years of migration with her parents and her brothers to Zambia and the United States, she feels relief and a sense of belonging here. Canada is now home and she is no longer afraid.

“I own this identity,” she says about being Canadian. “I never felt that way in the States. I always felt like an outsider. And even in Zambia I always felt like an outsider. I was very clearly different. But the thing about Canada is there is no one idea of what a Canadian is. You can be anything and be Canadian. And I really love that about living here. I feel like I belonged.”

The 25-year-old York University nursing student recalled “being afraid” and looking out on the porch of her family home in Kigali and seeing a massive fire ball. That fire ball was the President of Rwanda’s burning plane which had been shot down, triggering the genocide.

“I remember this feeling of unease and all the adults are sitting around the house, being quiet. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what.”

The next day the family went into hiding. Ntamwemezi, her sibling and her mother hid at an abandoned school; then with a family friend. Their father went elsewhere – to the home of a colonel in the army who was giving people refuge.

They all survived the genocide and almost immediately moved to Zambia where her father, a statistician, got a job with COMESA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

But the family never felt safe in Zambia. A driver/bodyguard took them to school and picked them up, she said. She remembers a woman sitting on the family couch with an AK47. Her job: to protect them. Eventually, the family moved to Atlanta where her mom went back to school. Her parents had another child there. Eventually they all found a permanent home in Canada.

“I feel like I’ve never lived in a country where people had more good will towards each other; more love and I won’t say tolerance, I’ll say acceptance of people,” she explained.

From China

For Jack Xu there was only one word that could describe his feelings about Canada: richness.

“Canada has enriched my life beyond anything I could imagine,” said the 32-year-old, who works as a translator and does training and testing at MCIS Languages. He’s also studying for his master’s degree at York University in conference interpreting.

“Canada to me represents richness because it has a very diverse population. It has resources and great bodies of water and vast land masses. Everywhere I go I absolutely love it. I’ve been to the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been to Quebec City.”

Born in Xingtai in the province of Hebei, China, Xu – who plays a mean jazz clarinet and saxophone – came to Canada as an 11-year-old. His parents came before him and he said they had to bribe officials in his home town to allow him to join them in Canada.

He grew up at first in the Weston Rd. and Jane St. area, then his parents separated and he and his mother moved to Montreal for a year and then to Scarborough.

If he had stayed in China his life would have been very different. “In China, not only would my life be already laid out in front of me, ready for me, but also everybody around me would have lived similar lives.”

He sees himself as a unique mix of Canadian and Chinese and is equally at home in both worlds. But Canada now has his heart.

“Many countries around the world welcome Canadians without the restrictions of a visa. It says something…we are not a belligerent country. We advocate peace internationally. I’m really proud to be a Canadian. If I go anywhere in the world and if people ask me where I’m from I’m really proud to say: ‘I’m Canadian.’”

From Japan

Chi Nguyen doesn’t skip a beat when she is asked what word best represents Canada to her. Open is her word. Her rationale: Canada is geographically open, open hearted; open minded and open spirited.

Nguyen, manager of the Neighbourhoods and Community Investment program at United Way Toronto, came to Canada with her parents from Japan, where she was born, when she was one-year-old.

Her parents had left Saigon in 1968 to study in Japan, hoping to find a better life for themselves. Her father was in a PhD engineering program. Her mother was doing her master’s degree in biochemistry.

But to her parents surprise Japan wasn’t granting citizenship to foreign nationals. They looked for another option, eventually applying to Canada as immigrants after failing to get into the United States. “I’m so grateful we got turned down by the U.S. My life would have been totally different.”

The family came in 1981. Her parents prospered and had two other children here. Nguyen and her parents became citizens as soon as possible. The 33-year-old remembers little of the ceremony as four-year-old. “I remember thinking: ‘I know this is a special occasion, but I don’t really know why.’ ”

But today she cannot speak emphatically enough about how she values her Canadian citizenship. It is such a “blessing, such a gift,” she said.

From the West Bank

Jehad Aliweiwi was stateless when he came to Canada in December, 1987 on a student visa to study at a language school. He left behind years of conflict and strife when he left his parents home in Hebron in the West Bank.

“For me, it’s not only a place where I actually found my place,” explained Aliwewi, “it’s a place that provided me with everything. For me, Canada is a place that is opportunity… I think that’s why there is a sense of confidence in Canada that it allows you to do this. It is not threatened by your perspective. I’ve never felt this country was afraid of me or to welcome me because my name is Jehad.”

Aliweiwi is a well-known face as the former executive director at the Thorncliffe Neighborhood Office. He now is the executive director of the Laidlaw Foundation. He also was the executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation and served on the executive of the Ontario NDP. He became a Canadian citizen in 1996, but the ceremony wasn’t particularly memorable. It’s only years later when he realized the significance.

“For me that was a seminal moment. It was the first time I was actually a citizen. I have always been characterized as stateless. You have a residency in the West Bank. So you have an Israeli residency permit. And if you’re from the West Bank you’re allowed a Jordanian passport, but that’s for travel. And it’s temporary. You’re not allowed to stay. For me this is the moment that ended my statelessness…It provided me with a sense of belonging, a sense of deep commitment to the well being of the country and this is when I realized I do have a role to play here, to make sure this place works for everyone.”

His word: Confident. He feels it best describes Canada and its willingness to embrace all who come here and make a life here.

From Nicaragua

Canada for Claudio Ruiz-Pilarte is where he found hope for the future. And so it is the word hope he chooses to represent his feelings for Canada.

The 42-year-old came to Canada as a 16-year-old refugee from Nicaragua in 1988. He and his family had originally sought refuge in Costa Rica after his brother deserted from the army following the Sandinista revolution.

“When I came to Canada, the overwhelming feeling I had, was hope. Hope for the future. Hope to be able to stay. Hope that my refugee claim was going to be accepted. Hope that I was going to become a citizen and hope that I was going to be able to have a good life here and be able to contribute,” Ruiz-Pilarte said.

He became a citizen in September, 1994 and is now the executive director of the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples. Becoming Canadian was a “validation” for him, “not only of the sacrifices, but also the anxieties that you go through …You breathe a sigh of relief. Finally you can start making plans. That’s the part I remember was the toughest when I came to Canada, this feeling of instability … By the time I came to Canada I was just craving to have a feeling of home. I don’t have to go anywhere else. This is where I will be now. This is where home will be.”

From Colombia

Jhonattan Bonilla-Ramirez’s enthusiasm for Canada is infectious. The 29-year-old’s face lights up when he begins to talk about his love for Canada and the value he places on his Canadian citizenship.

Compared to the dangers he faced as a teenager on the streets in his native Colombia – once home of the infamous drug dealer Pablo Escobar – Toronto is heaven, Bonilla-Ramirez says.

His journey here has been long and arduous. Expedition is the word he chose to convey his feelings about Canada, his citizenship and the pilgrimage here.

“When I became Canadian it was like a dream,” said Bonilla-Ramirez, a graphic designer and photographer, who also works as a translator and advertising coordinator at MCIS Language Services. “It was a relief because not only can you travel but you can identify yourself with the kind of culture you desire to live in – in my case a really peaceful place.”

Bonilla-Ramirez and his parents and siblings left Colombia in 2001. He was 15. His father had been member of the armed forces there and had been threatened by what Bonilla-Ramirez describes as “corrupt” military officials. Life was dangerous for the family. “To live in Colombia at that time … if you were in wrong place at the wrong time, it could have been your last day on Earth.”

So the family left for Hollywood, Florida. His parents got a work visa and they set up a cleaning company there. But in 2004 the visa was withdrawn and the family had to leave.

That’s when they decided to head north to Buffalo to try to seek refugee status in Canada. They finally came here in 2005. And in 2012 Bonilla-Ramirez got his Canadian citizenship.

“When we moved from Colombia to Florida to me that felt like heaven because of the security,” said Bonilla-Ramirez. “It’s very peaceful. You can walk on the streets without worrying about being robbed or stabbed or someone wants to take your glasses or cap and you get killed just because of that silliness. But then I when I moved to Canada and I said: ‘Oh wow. This is really heaven. This is really, really peaceful.”

Married and soon to be a father, Bonilla-Ramirez says: “I value my citizenship a 100 per cent. I’m proud to be a Canadian …Now that I have a bond legally with Canada I want to develop the sense of belonging more. My future generations will be Canadian. My son, his name is Samuel. He’s going to be Canadian.”

From India via Saudi Arabia

Haider Kazmi, a 37-year-old software development consultant, joined his parents and siblings in Canada just after he graduated from university with an engineering degree in 1999.

He was born in India, but grew up in Saudi Arabia. There he felt like a second-class citizen. He never felt comfortable because he didn’t have citizenship. Nor did his family. His parents were not allowed to own property. Kazmi felt discriminated against and picked on.

“Typically what would happen to us is we’d be out playing soccer and six cop cars would come and ask for our IDs,” Kazmi explains. “But here’s the bummer, you couldn’t get IDs. Basically only parents can get it.” So he and his friends would end up in jail because they didn’t have identification and their parents would have to come and bail them out.

That constant worry, plus a growing tide of resentment against foreign workers also began to disturb his parents. “The country had about 30 million people. Fifteen million were expats. Local kids were not able to find jobs because highly qualified people from outside were taking their jobs. You never knew if your dad was going to lose his job or go back home. All that put together you never felt it was your home.”

Kazmi, who lives in Oakville, doesn’t feel the same about Canada and Canadian society. His words to describe his adopted homeland and citizenship is first class.

He values his citizenship and describes how his father-in-law recently was carjacked, beaten and killed in New Delhi as he was on the way to the airport to pick up his daughter, Kazmi’s wife.

“You don’t want to call a place like that your home. Just the contrast between a place like India, Saudi Arabia, and here,” he says as his voice drops off and he contemplates his words. “If there was ever a war between India and Canada, I’d be fighting for Canada.”

From the Philippines

Home. That’s what Canada means to Beejay Javier, a 33-year-old counsellor, psychotherapist and student. “Canada is and will always be my home,” she said.

Javier, who resides in Kitchener-Waterloo and works and studies in Toronto, came to Canada in 2006. After leaving the Philippines, she first went to California. “I thought the U.S. was the land of dreams,” she said. “Then I got here and I thought this is more the land of opportunities.”

Currently working on her master’s degree in clinical psychology, she got her Canadian citizenship earlier this year. She confesses to feeling much relief after the ceremony. “A burden was off my shoulders,” she explained.

But the first few years in Canada were far from easy for her. Without any family or a large support network, she had to start from scratch. “It was a big struggle,” she confesses. “I was living on a tight budget. But knowing what I wanted got me through it.”

She did some post-graduate work at George Brown College in autism and behavioural sciences and now is studying for her master’s in psychology at the Adler Institute for Professional Studies. She is also doing some counselling and coaching of adults and children, working under the supervision of a team of psychologists.

As a naturalized citizen she resents the reforms introduced by Ottawa to citizenship and challenges the shift from citizenship as a right to a privilege. “I don’t think it should be a privilege,” she said. “It’s hard enough to come here as an immigrant. You have to prove you have enough resources. And for you to be put in that place where it is a privilege and can be taken away from you it sort of defeats the whole purpose of that hard work.

“Leaving all those things behind in another country and going to a whole new different country, having to face the challenges and having to live there for three, five years just to be a citizen. And then you’re going to tell me you can take it away from me when I feel I actually deserve it.”

facebook-20141123-101343Here in Canada, every year on July first, we reflect on many reasons we are proud to be Canadians. However, there are also other times that it sort of sneaks up on you: like when you are travelling abroad and someone notices your Canadian passport – “Ah, Canada, ees beautiful country!” (in broken English), or the pride you feel when Canada is participating in world events such as the Olympics or the Pan Am Games (which are currently going on in Toronto), or even when (like in my photo here) I was at the Toronto FC football match and the announcer says: ‘Now on your feet, take off your hats, raise your scarves and let’s honour Canada by singing our Canadian National Anthem’ – oh the chills when you hear thirty thousand people sing Oh, Canada.

How about you? When do you feel particularly patriotic? What one word describes your experience as a Canadian? American? Australian? Or wherever you are from (our blog is proudly shared all over the world). Tell us your story in the comments below.

Happy Canada Day! Be loud and be proud!


2 thoughts on “What it means to be Canadian

  1. Tomorrow, July 1st, is your big day in Canada! Let me be among the first to wish you a joyous and safe Canada Day! (My two Persian cats celebrate their birthday on the same day, and turn four tomorrow. I’m sure you are thrilled…! LOL!)


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