Indyref and Identity

A Bosnian-Croatian-Canadian’s Perspective

My name is Ivana McConnell. I was born Ivana Bilić in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1989, just before the beginning of the war in 1992. Our family heritage included Muslim, Croat, and Serbian, and that was okay. But then the fighting began, and it suddenly wasn’t okay anymore.

Stay with me for a second.

We left Sarajevo when fighting began, and I grew up in Croatia. My mother, father, and I moved to Canada as refugees in 1995. Canada gave us the chance to start over, and provided me with an education and a chance to forge my own identity. In 2010, I moved to Glasgow for what should have been a year’s exchange, but never left. I fell in love with the country and its inhabitants; I married a Glaswegian. I bought my first home here.

I voted in the Scottish referendum.


Identity: the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.

Whenever anyone asks me the question, “Where are you from?” it often takes me a moment to answer. As you now know, I’ve moved around a great deal, and was often at pains to fit in wherever I went. When I moved to Croatia, I learned the local dialect, and could bone a fish with my eyes closed. When I moved to Canada, I learned English by watching Wishbone and reading children’s versions of classic novels. I played hockey. When I moved to Scotland, I played rugby, started living with a Glaswegian and picked up the accent; now, when I open my mouth to speak, people have no idea where I’m from.

I’m happy to be an amalgamation of all of these things, to draw upon all of them depending on the situation I’m in, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’ll happily cheer on Glasgow in the Boxing Day rugby derby, while in Canada, drinking a Croatian brandy and eating Bosnian food, and feel an equal part of all those places. They are all part of my identity, and what makes me unique.

However, when I arrived in Scotland, I immediately felt a strong sense of national identity that was apparent in more than just the broad accent. There was something about being “Scottish” that was so very unique, and had nothing to do with political opinion or alignment. It was about the highlands, about Buckfast and Irn Bru and sausage suppers, about the history with the English, about the rugby team always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — all of this I would eventually learn, and it would all justify my perception of the Scots as one of the most generous groups of people I’ve ever had the privilege to live among.

Of course, it was frightening at times — my first chance encounter with an Old Firm crowd being a case in point — but this strong identity manifested itself in all areas of Scotland, regardless of political or religious opinion, and that is why I was so fascinated by it. The referendum was to put this identity under the spotlight, and ask what it means to be Scottish.


Should Scotland become an independent country? Yes or No?

Such a simple question, mired in politics, economics, international relations, and a whole host of other things I don’t know nearly enough about.

The campaigns truly gathered steam in the past few weeks, and as the pressure intensified on both groups, identity was thrown into the mix — if you vote a certain way, you can’t possibly be Scottish. The political parties did this too, and they did it shamelessly. My friend Marcus Kernohan explains this beautifully:

An influential narrative emerged in certain corners of the Yes camp which argued that the elites in our society were attempting to squash Scotland’s drive for self-determination; it argued, therefore, that any No voter was either part of those elites.
…Meanwhile, the unionists’ crank contingent…tried to paint all nationalists as xenophobes and anti-English bigots; as “rebellious Scots” to be crushed and as traitors to crown and country.

Now, the kind of identity that the campaigns often leverage is the romantic and perhaps stereotypical one, the one that they have no business pulling into politics. This identity has nothing to do with practicalities and everything to do with matters of the heart, and soon they begin equating one’s political opinion for one’s love for a country. This is a mistake, but it happens so often in politics, simply because people often aren’t sure about how to gather concrete information. It drives wedges between friends, families, and makes them question each other’s integrity and desire for change.

This divide is something I’ve experienced before, both within myself as a teenager and within a society, though I was too young to remember it when it occurred in Bosnia in 1992. Of course, there are cultural and personal differences, but it always pains me to see that division when — most often — these people are more similar than they choose to believe.


Just like anyone else’s teenage years, mine were a struggle with my own identity and with how I chose to define myself at that key period. I don’t remember much from that time (perhaps more because I have no desire to revisit it) and didn’t often have the awareness to look outside of myself, but there is one thing I do remember very clearly. My little brother, who can’t have been more than seven years old at the time and was born in Canada, was only fully realising the implications of our last name, and how it identified us as very much not Canadian (at least not originally). He was understanding, in his own way, that a war had happened, that people had turned against each other partly because of their identities, and turned to my mother for clarification.

“Who are we supposed to hate?” he asked. There was no malice in him— there never has been. He is an incredibly level-headed, kind young man. But he, just like his sister and many before him, had made that tenuous connection between politics and emotion, bringing an event from our past into his own present and future and trying to make sense of it.

Now, my mother doesn’t talk about the war very much. Neither does my father. My mother’s parents were of Serbian and Bosnian origin. My father’s parents were Muslim and Catholic, and they had given him the name Jugoslav (for those who don’t know, this became an incredibly dangerous name to possess anywhere in Eastern Europe on April 6, 1992). Both my mother and father had every reason to be aggrieved and embittered by the country that had splintered in a matter of days and in the process, turned on them and hundreds of thousands of others, endangering their family and their then three-year-old daughter. I owe them my life, my livelihood, my education, and everything in between.

It occurs to me when I think about my brother’s question that I don’t remember anything else about that day, that conversation, or even the look on my mother’s face (likely because, as a teenager, I didn’t want to give away my interest by looking at her). But I’ll always remember her answer, even if she doesn’t.

“We don’t hate anyone.”


The final numbers were 55.3% No, 44.7% Yes.

I had told myself that no matter what the outcome of the vote, I would avoid Facebook and Twitter, but I couldn’t stop myself. What confronted me there was a series of knee-jerk reactions (and perhaps this is the pot calling the kettle black, but bear with me) that were unsettling at best and frightening at their worst. Allegations of misguided morality and stupidity flew with abandon, but the idea was always the same:

“If you voted X, you can’t call yourself a Scot!”

I don’t agree with this. Truth be told, when I first received my ballot, I had wondered if I should vote at all— I wondered if I deserved the vote, given that I was not born in this country. But I wasn’t born in Canada, either. Nor Croatia. And yet, both of those countries form an integral part of who I am, just as Scotland does. Scotland offered me my own independence, saved my life in many ways, and I care deeply about its future. As a result, I will vote accordingly to the best of my knowledge and ability.

However, my vote has no impact on that love and desire, just as that love has no impact on my vote. As far as I’m concerned, this is one part of the referendum that need not be debated— but of course, that isn’t the case. The abuse on Facebook and Twitter (some of which was directed to Andy Murray when he chose to get involved, and was particularly appalling) rages around the very thing that Scotland should now rally around in the most positive of ways.


For my part, now that the votes are cast, I hope that this referendum is enough to act as a catalyst for change, because change is needed no matter which box we chose to fill on our voting ballots. Westminster has promised it, though whether it comes through on those promises is something for those far more knowledgeable than me to debate in the weeks and months to come.

However, regardless of the outcome, I believe that it’s important to realise that Scotland’s identity isn’t in jeopardy the way some make it out to be. Independent or not, Scotland will still be loved by the people who reside in it, and it is important that the people within it come together. Regardless of whether a person voted yes, no, or was one of the few who didn’t vote at all, it does not make them any less Scottish. It doesn’t take away from their deep-rooted, passionate love for the country they live in— I know that it doesn’t take away from mine— or their desire to see it change for the better.

I haven’t directly spoken about how I voted; I don’t think that’s the point. Maybe you don’t think I should have the right to vote in Scotland at all, and that’s okay. My political opinion is my political opinion— I want Scotland to keep moving forward and to take care of its people as it’s taken care of me, and I don’t imagine that anyone else, no matter how they voted, feels differently.

I’m an idealist; what I hope for is that the vitriol dies down and that what remains is a unified (though maybe not independent) group of Scots who are passionate about seeing their country become a power on the world stage. I don’t know how that will happen or when, but I do know that their identity will never suffer because it is greater than economics, finance, and political opinion alike.

My name is Ivana McConnell, and I hope they count me as one of them.

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