I am shopping for a red dress. Red, like the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. My husband Pearse and I, along with our two children Keelin and Dillon, are about to become Canadian citizens.
We are all Irish citizens, and have lived in Canada since 2012. Cara, our dog, was born here and so is already a Canadian, but for the rest of us, becoming Canadian has been a more arduous process. There were the tortuous forms. Then, an exam. The last step will be our citizenship ceremony, which involves swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. As Irish people who remember the Troubles, this is not something we take lightly.
Canada and Ireland allow dual citizenship. Yet in the province of Alberta, where we live, you can only have one driving licence. To get your Alberta licence you must surrender your Irish one, and it is methodically cut into pieces in front of you. I found that hard to watch, not just because I looked so young in the photo. It felt like I was taking a big step away from Ireland, making the process of returning that little bit harder.
But no one will cut up my Irish passport as a consequence of my Canadian citizenship. My Irishness is a huge part of my identity, and that won’t change, but I will be proud to be able to call myself Canadian too. It’s about more than gaining a right to vote here, or the opportunity to move away, maybe even back to Ireland, and always be able to come back to Canada. It’s about being recognised as a fully paid-up member of the society in which we live and work and contribute.
My husband and I took the citizenship exam seriously. A study guide sets out the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, along with a potted history of Canada. There’s a section on how democracy works, and another with facts and figures about the economy. We took to shooting random test questions at each other: “What is the capital of Nova Scotia?” “I’ll tell you if you can name the Prairie provinces”. Spouses are given different exams. Even competitive spouses.
The exam is multiple choice, 20 questions in all. Some test comprehension more than knowledge. We were finished in no time, but had to stay in the room until the exam ends. Looking around at the people still hunched over their papers, frowning with concentration, I felt our privilege loom so large it might need its own seat. It is all so easy for us. English is our first language. We have third-level education. We grew up in a western parliamentary democracy.
We were surrounded by people who have likely worked much harder than us to get to this point. Of the 40 or so people who took the exam that day, most were from Asia and the Middle East. We were probably the only Europeans, certainly the only white people, and possibly the only ones who give the implications of the oath much thought.
All of us in that room were hoping to become part of the “Canadian mosaic”; the idea that a person can retain their cultural identity and still contribute to the Canadian nation, as distinct from the American idea of a melting pot into which every culture must assimilate. But despite this ideal, every immigrant experiences a sense of otherness from time to time, even us.
My daughter Keelin comes home from school and tells me “amn’t” is not a word. I beg to differ. Becoming a citizen won’t change the fact of my upbringing and experiences elsewhere, but it will make me feel like I have a rightful place in, and can add something to, the mosaic. I amn’t wrong about that I am sure.
We didn’t intend to stay here in Canada so long. Sometimes I feel guilty about bringing up my children far away from their homeland and family, and I often think about the parallel life we might be living in Dublin if we had not chosen to move here.
My children know they are Irish, but they feel Canadian. They know what an eejit is but they don’t have the cúpla focail. There are many great things about Ireland that they have missed out on, but I hope this is balanced, if not outweighed, by all the wonderful things they experience in Canada. My son spills something and says “Jaysus”, thinking no one can hear. It’s another little piece of the mosaic.
We each scored 100 per cent on our respective citizenship exams. “Neither gets bragging rights,” said the smiling official who gave us our results. What a relief. Pearse would have been insufferable if he scored higher than me.
The next step will be the citizenship ceremony and the oath. The oath of allegiance is to the sovereign and the sovereign is the personification of Canada. So if you can get your head around it, you are swearing allegiance to Canada and if you can’t… well then you are simply swearing allegiance to the queen.
Pearse was named after a hero of 1916; the man who read the Proclamation of the Republic no less. The irony of that is not lost on us. In Croke Park in 2007 at the Ireland vs England game that was so much more than a game of rugby, I cried as we sang Amhran na bhFiannn. It’s the only time our national anthem has made me cry. I felt so proud of how far we had come as a nation. Of the spirit of reconciliation and maturity that filled the grounds that day. That’s the spirit in which I will swear allegiance. No finger crossing, cute hoor, Irish malarkey. We are already too Canadian for that.
You can love a second country just like you love a second child. Wholly and completely. You just wrap your arms around it and embrace it. New love opens up for the second without there being any less love for the first. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. I will find a red dress. And we will swear allegiance. Hand on heart.