On Canada Day and being the “right” kind of immigrant
It was the mid-90s and I was in the back of a cab in Toronto one late summer evening. Being a cab driver’s daughter, I had an easy rapport with most drivers. I knew their world, respected the work that they did, and always called them ‘Sir’. The driver and I were chatting about the city, and how things were changing when he said casually, “…yah, and those fucking immigrants.” “Yah, those fucking immigrants,” I responded. I calmly asked him to pull over and told him he could let me out where we were; nowhere near my original destination. He was confused, especially when I got out of the cab before paying him and leaned back in through the open door, “I’m one of those fucking immigrants, you racist asshole.” I told him I wasn’t going to pay him and if he had an issue with it, I’d be happy to meet him at The Commission to discuss the matter further. I slammed the door, and hailed another cab as he drove off telling me to go fuck myself.
I’m a tri-citizen. British, as I’m Welsh by birth, American by naturalization, and Canadian by choice.
My story in a nutshell: my American father, who was stationed with the Army in Italy during the Vietnam War met my Liverpudlian mother who was a nanny for one of the Lords of the High Court while they were vacationing at a villa. They fell in love. My father got reassigned back to the US, and shortly after returning home, announced to his parents that he was going to Britain to ‘marry that girl’. They married in the UK and lived there for a few years with my elder sister. They then moved to Queens, NY until my mother finally got pregnant with me after suffering a series of miscarriages. She wanted to have me ‘at home’, so with a few days’ notice, she sold everything and packed up her family and moved back to Wales. In 1972, two and half years after I was born, my family re-located to Toronto, Ontario under sponsorship from my Uncle, who himself had re-located to Toronto from NYC after he’d married a nice Jewish girl from Canada. With my mother and my sister, we landed at Pearson Airport, becoming permanent residents of Canada.
Citizenship and identity was something that I was keenly aware of growing up because my mother made it so. I was born in Cardiff, Wales, and she entrenched in me a fiercely loyal affinity for all things Cymru. She called me her ‘Pit Pony’, told me stories of coal miners and their bravery, and how the Welsh were warriors whose distinctiveness was a point of pride and something to stand for (which is why when people tell the Welsh they’re ‘really British’ the typical response is ‘go fuck eff’.) My mother ensured that I knew that although I had a British passport, I was Welsh, not English thankuverrymuch.
My mother also entrenched in me a pride for being from a Jewish line. She, the Roman Catholic girl from Polish stock made me more intensely proud and aware of what it meant to be Jewish (and don’t at me…I’m Jewish enough to be an Israeli citizen, thanks) than my Jewish father did. I learned my history because of her educating me on how perilous my life would’ve been had I been born in an earlier era in Europe. I spent summers in Rockaway Beach and Brooklyn with my American grandparents and cousins, naturally picking up how to say my name as ‘Kahren’, and learning how to embrace the ‘I don’t fucking think so’ New Yorker attitude.
The combined fighting spirit of being the daughter of a Scouser and a Brooklynite continues to serve me well.
Growing up in Tronno, every time the census takers came around, I was learning what it meant to be a ‘landed immigrant’, and what that meant for me. I was living in Canada, and I had all the rights and obligations of being a Canadian, and the only thing I couldn’t do was vote. In my youth and ignorance, it didn’t really matter much to me. I was under no threat, and was living a life that lacked interference or state directed suffrage. It was when I reached university as a single-mother of a two-and-a-half year old, did my political awareness and social justice muscle grow, exponentially.
The provincial government, then led by Mike Harris, thwarted my ability to complete my undergraduate degree. Through social assistance and OSAP loans, I had a five-year plan to complete an Honours BA in Economics and Women’s Studies (so I could be a feminist bitch with an attitude about money too). When his government cut social assistance by 21%, he took away my grocery money. I was forced to leave school and go back to work. The only reason I stood a chance was because I had been working since I was 11 years old, so that when I hit the workforce again I was making on average $18/hr, when the minimum wage was $8.
I sought to become a Canadian in 1996, because I wanted to vote. When I called the British embassy to inquire as to any implication of becoming Canadian and the possibility of having to give up my British citizenship, the woman on the other end of the line said, “No love, as long as they don’t mind, we don’t mind.” I used my American birth certificate and passport as identification through the process, and in October of 1996, I stood with at least 100 people in a large room in North York, and pledged my allegiance to the country that I lived in, flourished in, and wanted to fully contribute to as a citizen.
My citizenship is one of privilege, and timing. I had the choice to become Canadian because of the decision my parents made to come to Canada. I have no idea what would happen if my parents tried to emigrate to Canada now. My instincts tell me that the journey would not be as seemingly easy as it was back in 1972.
As a landed immigrant and a Canadian, every bit of my work has benefited the Canadian and Ontario economies. I have worked since I was 11 years old and paid taxes since I was legally obliged. Part-time jobs as fast food counter help, selling shoes and babysitting led to positions as secretary and executive assistants, which led the way to roles as COO and VP, Business Design over the past 30+ years. I’ve never negated my responsibility to pay my taxes, and my contribution via those taxes has well covered any support I received in those leaner, more needy years.
I have never suffered because of my immigrant background. I’m white, and have no discernable accent. In other words, to some I’m the “right” kind of immigrant. I am ever mindful of the fact that I don’t look like an “immigrant”, and I don’t sound like an “immigrant”; but here I am, nonetheless.
This is why it’s so important for people like me to acknowledge our privilege, and our settler status. I am a white settler on Turtle Island. I, and my family, benefit from the colonization of an occupied territory. My obligation is to hold a mirror up to my own biases, ignorance and learned racism. My obligation is continue to learn more about the history of racism and colonization in Canada, and speak truth to ignorance and power, wherever possible.
When asked, I say that I’m Canadian; it’s the identity that is the most rooted and most honest for me. This is the country that has formed whom I am, and my political beliefs. I believe in peace, order and good government. I believe deeply in reconciliation. I believe in social medicine. I believe that #whenweallwinweallwin. I am proud to be a citizen of Canada, and my commitment is to continue to work towards making this a country that is welcoming, and supportive of all Canadians; those that lucked out by being born here, and those that struggle to reach our shores.