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From the archives

Referendum Trudeau

He campaigned in poetry but governed in prose

Rinkside Reading

What does hockey’s literature say about the sport?

Alarm Bells

Fort McMurray and fires hence

Ceremonial Matters

On King and country

Kyle Wyatt

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born in southwestern Ontario on December 17, 1874. In 1921, two weeks after his forty-seventh birthday, he became our tenth prime minister, eventually holding the office longer than any other. But King was not formally made a Canadian citizen until much later, on January 1, 1947. “I signed a letter acknowledging one from Mr. St. Laurent,” he wrote in his diary that evening, “telling me that the Dept. were sending me the first passport of the new series which makes me No. 1 citizen of Canada. How extraordinary this is! Not to be understood except in what has come down to me from the past.”

Several months earlier, the Liberal government had passed the Canadian Citizenship Act. Before it took effect, King was considered a British subject, as were others who had been born here or had become naturalized immigrants. Some saw the new legislation as a mere technicality. “All that the Citizenship Act did was to clarify obscurities in the law,” the Globe and Mail argued, “which was worth doing, but hardly worth the fuss kicked up about it.” King disagreed, describing “all this citizenship business” as “quite remarkable.” And that was prior to attending Canada’s first citizenship ceremony.

On January 3, the prime minister arrived at the new Supreme Court of Canada building, at 301 Wellington Street. Gathered that night were six of the seven justices, wearing cloaks of velvet and ermine, as well as Paul Martin Sr., who had introduced the citizenship act as secretary of state, and Colin Gibson, Martin’s successor. During a forty-minute program, broadcast on radio across the country, the chief justice, Thibaudeau Rinfret, handed King and a dozen other “old Canadians” their certificates of citizenship and administered the citizenship oath for twelve “new Canadians” drawn from every province, among them Canada’s first Ukrainian settler, Wasyl Eleniak, and the renowned Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh. The pageantry “marked the beginning of a new constitutional epoch,” the Ottawa Citizen reported. “For at long last, Canadians are now really Canadians, by law as well as in fact.” Standing outside the Supreme Court following the proceedings, King reflected on “one of the most enchanting scenes I have witnessed.”

Held in a courtroom in Scarborough, Ontario, my own citizenship ceremony certainly lacked the pageantry of King’s. There were no high-profile justices in attendance, no members of Parliament, no celebrity photographers. But for me, that morning in July 2015 was no less enchanting. After swearing the oath and singing the national anthem next to a grade 5 student originally from Kenya, I joined friends, colleagues, and loved ones for a celebratory lunch in downtown Toronto. Then I made my way to York University, where I watched Matt Hughes, a future training partner of mine, win the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Pan American Games. The night ended back downtown, where the legendary soul musician Charles Bradley knocked my socks off during a free concert at Nathan Phillips Square.

I’ll never forget that day. Indeed, everything about it was more salient, more memorable because I had just shared an indelible moment with dozens of other new Canadians — shared a unifying experience with countless many, stretching all the way back to January 3, 1947.

If the current Liberal government has its way, would-be Canadians will be able to forgo this tradition and simply self-administer the citizenship oath at home — perhaps on their couch, in their sweatpants, right before ordering their takeout from Uber Eats. As Shakespeare’s Henry V exclaims, “O ceremony, show me but thy worth!”

I’m sure that the new immigration minister, Marc Miller, has attended a citizenship ceremony or two, and I am sure he’s found it to be an affecting affair. Yet having been born in Montreal, well after 1947, he can’t quite fathom what it’s like to swear the oath among fellow Canadians by choice. And I, having done so, still can’t quite convey to him or his boss the “feeling of close fellowship,” as King put it decades ago, that comes with that experience.

Yes, Ottawa should modernize immigration processes, which can be lengthy, opaque, and bothersome. I applaud changes that allow those on work permits, for example, to become landed immigrants without having to leave the country physically, only to come right back in. But becoming a citizen is of a higher order than gaining permanent residency, however inconvenient the scheduling. I think King would agree. I think he would understand why I’ve signed House of Commons petition e-4511 to encourage the cabinet to find efficiencies elsewhere.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.

Related Letters and Responses

David S. Goldbloom Toronto

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