Before I became a Canadian citizen, I had been examined and X-rayed and put through the bureaucratic wringer. I had spent thousands of dollars on paperwork and passport photos and fingerprints and background checks. I had been given an English proficiency test in a part of Toronto I had never seen, even though I was teaching Canadian students works of Canadian literature at a Canadian university at the time. I had visited every province, had been as far east as Cape Spear, as far west as Skidegate, and had gone dogsledding in Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Before I became a Canadian citizen, I had lived and paid taxes here for ten years, had celebrated Thanksgiving — in October! — on an island in Georgian Bay, had earned two graduate degrees, and had met my partner, whose father taught me how to portage.
Before I became a Canadian citizen, I had been tested on what it means to be Canadian (answering questions that continue to stump my Canadian-born friends), had helped a seventy-year-old Indian grandmother adjust her new Maple Leaf pin, and had talked to a twelve-year-old Kenyan girl about whether we should attempt the second verse of “O Canada” in French. As I became a Canadian citizen, I surrendered my permanent resident card, dotted my Is and crossed my Ts, and swore an oath.
When I walk down the street and go about my day, I easily pass as a native-born Canadian. It takes a discerning ear to pick up whatever traces of my former accent remain, and I long ago adopted Canadian spellings and words like “eh” and “washroom.” But spend much time with me at all and you’ll know that I wasn’t born here, and that a different place shaped much of my world view. You’ll also know that I am a fiercely proud Canadian.
Nonetheless, people constantly remind me that I am not actually Canadian. “No, no, I mean a real Canadian,” I’ve been chided numerous times, including in multiple job interviews. “How do you know that? You’re not even really a Canadian” is another common one — so common that a contributor to this magazine said it to me just last week when I mentioned something about nineteenth-century Ontario. Even when people get past my questionable bona fides, they interrogate my allegiances, frequently asking, “Do you think you’ll ever go back?” or “But if you could live in New York, wouldn’t you?”
I’ve never detected nativist hostility in such remarks, which tend to betray more of a Mouse That Roared insecurity than anything blatantly offensive, yet they gnaw at me. I chose Canada to build a better life, and I did what was asked of me so that I could stay — forever. However lighthearted they may be, references to “real Canadians” continually put me, and other Canadians by Choice, on the defensive. We have to explain ourselves. We have to justify our dualities.
If 1969 is remembered as the summer of the Manson Family, Black Power, Trudeau’s White Paper, and Woodstock, it may well be the case that 2019 will be remembered as the summer of “Send Her Back.” Even as Donald Trump says from the White House that Americans must “condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” following back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in early August, he spews racism and nativism from the podium he grips in his tiny hands.
With each new Twitter tirade and South Lawn browbeating of the press, Trump reminds me more and more of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the fascist president imagined by the Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis in 1935. Here is a man who was
vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.
Wings of a windmill or not, the philosophy and words of a vulgar and illiterate demagogue with a bully pulpit and an army of violent sycophants have consequences.
What this summer proves, yet again, is that all Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others. It’s a long-standing Orwellian truth, but one that’s never been so boldly proclaimed in barnyards, stadiums, and halls of power alike. Throughout the United States, many are asking, How did this happen? Lewis’s prescient novel provides an answer with its very title: by pretending for far too long that It Can’t Happen Here.
In the novel, Windrip and his government establish concentration camps, exercise extreme gerrymandering, and make a mockery of the judiciary. Across the country, loyal Minute Men enforce the new agenda, while a majority quietly approves — all scenarios that feel more plausible when I read the novel now than they did even a few years ago. Such things are simply necessary to make America great again. At the same time, dissidents flee to Canada, where they organize an attempt to save the United States from self-destruction. In an increasingly fascist nation, civil war is inevitable.
“What’d you do?” the novel’s reluctant hero, Doremus Jessup, is asked at one point. “Sneak off to Canada and join the propagandists against the Chief?” It’s the type of joking accusation I hear when I visit friends and family back home. Having chosen higher taxes and health care and other radical things, I am no longer American enough — just as I’m somehow incapable of being a real Canadian in the eyes of many.
We like to think that American-style divisiveness and xenophobia can’t happen here, of course. We’re too welcoming, too multicultural. Yet numerous writers — from Evelyn Kwong in the Toronto Star to Michael Fraiman in Maclean’s — have pointed out that “Go back to where you came from” is as Canadian as poutine. I’d add that both Buzz Windrip and Donald Trump serve as cautionary reminders that “Do you think you’ll ever go back?” can quickly become “Go back,” and that “I mean a real Canadian” can quickly go from a self-effacing joke to a charged insinuation.
Most Canadians who were born in this country have never attended a citizenship ceremony. Years before I swore the oath, I attended the ceremony of my doctoral supervisor, Daniel Heath Justice. The presiding judge, himself an immigrant, polled the room and asked where everyone was born. Many wore clothing and headgear that proclaimed their origins — including Daniel’s Cherokee turban. Participants in my own ceremony were encouraged to celebrate our newly hyphenated status through clothing, as well, and we were reminded that in our hearts we didn’t have to choose between our homeland and our new home. I proudly waved my little flag while wearing red, white, and blue socks.
Of course, long before any of us became citizens, we had thought of ourselves as Canadian. And that’s the real test that matters.