This year Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It’s a year in which many will think about where they came from and where they now live. Whether they came as an immigrant or a refugee, those who have arrived in their own lifetime, may wonder once again if they are at ‘home’; ask themselves when that conviction came to them and what changed them from someone seeking a new home into someone who found one.
Some may look back on generations of their family who have settled here, others to thousands of years that this land mass has been the home of their ancestors. In spite of its vastness and many travellers’ first impressions of its apparently untouched beauties, we have learned more in recent years of the people who lived here thousands of years ago and how they lived. In the past week a new discovery has been made on the west coast of Canada of a 14,000 year old village. We are more aware now of the long history of our first nations and the terrible sufferings imposed on them in recent centuries by governments, churches and society. In the 21st century, we are finally making an effort to achieve justice and reconciliation, a long painful process which still requires much more investment before all Canadians are treated equally.
Since I arrived here at the age of 21, there have been many times when I have been brought up short by the differences, subtle and not so subtle, between the society I left and the one that has grown familiar to me in my years here. And yes, after nearly sixty years. I do feel this is my home. I even feel that I can write stories and poems set in Canada, though it took a long time before I did this.
I wonder if all those who have come here in the past or in the present have experienced the same steps I have in their discovery that they have become Canadian?
I had the advantage that I spoke the same language as the majority of people here, though of course, my usage was often different and noted. I still meet people who ask where I come from and sometimes assume my arrival was recent! It takes a long time to build the confidence to be oneself, if one feels that one is different, even when society is in general welcoming.
For most, work is the crucial point of entry into a new community. Not only because, of course, it is essential to the support of oneself and one’s family but because, with luck, working with colleagues or co-workers, one starts to see that one is contributing and becoming a part of both the economy and the new community.
Another important step for me was the birth of my children. They were born here and didn’t question their identity as Canadians. Once in school, they like all children were influenced by their peers and, to my eyes at least, became just as Canadian as the kids next door. Though this is harder for some second generation Canadians, as their parents may wish to preserve their old ways, and fear that their children will grow away from them, most adapt to their circumstances and, sometimes with a great effort, manage to bridge the gap between old and new. And the older members of the family, whose English or French is poor, rely heavily on the young ones to negotiate with the world outside the family.
Some newcomers, particularly those of previous generations, when people came and settled permanently or at least for many years, in one place, came to terms with the knowledge that they would never return to their original place as their older relatives died and were buried in the new home. These days, it is more often a visit to one’s place of origin that forces recognition that one has become part of one’s new community, even when there is family still living there.
And that may prompt a new exploration of the vast country we inhabit and a new appreciation, not only of its beauty, but of the familiarity of that little part of it in which we live. As we return after a trip of this sort we finally realize, sometimes with relief that we are coming home.
Perhaps you have had very different experiences from mine, or hold different opinions, I would love to hear what you think.