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In making room for others, we make room for ourselves – and for Canada

Six Degrees: Experiments in Pluralism is an essay series devoted to exploring Canada's emerging identity as an experimental society. The inaugural 6 Degrees "citizen space," presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, will take place in Toronto from Sept. 19 to 21. 6degreescanada.com

Recently, I was on the Queen streetcar in Toronto when a woman pushing twins in a stroller attempted to get up the steps. A man with dreadlocks wearing a pinstripe suit and a lady with a patent-leather handbag rushed to her aid and, after a brief struggle, she landed safely and pushed the stroller down the aisle. The twins, a boy and girl, stared apprehensively at the rest of us. People cleared the seats around them so the stroller had lots of room and the mother could sit.

In Canada we are used to making space. Most of us, or our parents or grandparents, had room made for us in this country. Whether, like me, they got on a Red Cross exchange boat in 1942 that carried 30 per cent more passengers than it legally should have, or were plucked from a Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong in the 1970s and landed in Edmonton in mid-winter, or were flown from Chile to Vancouver after the 1973 coup, or fetched up in Montreal as a deserter from the U.S. Army in 1979 – we were driven here by forces beyond our control.

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There is something particular about Canada, with its atmosphere of benevolent neglect, of letting people alone, that makes it possible for those who arrive with nothing, to sense that they can belong and be part of something they can help to construct.

I think it has to do with the negotiation of space. It isn't just that we live in an enormous country, the second-largest in the world. It isn't just because our population doesn't match that land mass. It is because we have come to a country where we have created what Montreal-born playwright Olivier Kemeid calls the empire of the dispossessed. The twins in their stroller, the people who made room for them, are part of that continuing stream. As Canadians, we are all part of the politics of that empire.

My own experience as a refugee during the Second World War exemplifies this. I know very well what it is like to have room made for me, to know what it is like to go somewhere unknown and be taken in. Personally, my family never felt that anyone was making space for us that would not otherwise have existed. So, to me, always, Canada is open and spacious. Canada can welcome others as it did me.

I think this is very profound in the psyches of most of us Canadians. We don't know why we feel that way; that's just the way it is. We are busily creating our empire because we know what it is like to have nothing. I negotiated my space in this country just as somebody who would later come from Dar es Salaam, Ho Chi Minh City or Belgrade would do.

And I am sure that none of us, in negotiating that space, in becoming what we have become in this country, has stayed the same as we would have, had we remained where we were born. The context would have been so different, the conditions so varied, that, once here, we have negotiated something which I call a political space for ourselves.

This political space exists because Canada has given us a wide berth and a lodging that attaches us to something larger than simply our race or our culture or our religion or language. I'm convinced that it has to do with the geography, the space and the climate. We now belong to associations such as parent-teacher, neighbourhood ratepayers, Rotary. We have settled.

Moving beyond our checkered past

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With the notable exception of the Indigenous peoples, we are all immigrants to this country. But our history of immigration has been tarnished. If all space is politically negotiated, we have certainly gone through times in which the politics have betrayed our ethical sensibility.

There were also the years when we passed legislation to restrict immigration, such as discouraging the Chinese from entering Canada by inflicting the notorious head tax, evicting Doukhobors from the land they had worked and made fruitful for years in Saskatchewan, and refusing shamefully to take in Jews we knew were being persecuted in the 1930s.

But we have been able to acknowledge these disgraceful actions and, more important, we have been able to change and we have been conscious in making that change. Consciousness is also a political act on behalf of a country. People who behave in an unconscious manner do not know what they are doing and they will hurt, maim and distort the historical context in which they live. What distinguishes Canada from many other countries is that, once we had decided we would be inclusive, we did it consciously, with purpose.

We have learned much of this generosity from the way in which the Indigenous peoples welcomed us: They taught us how to use canoes to navigate the waterways that took us to the heart of the continent we then claimed as ours. They showed us how to live in the wilderness and how to survive the cold.

This generosity made it possible for us to have a long history in giving. For most of my life, we were a country that cared for the world. With institutions like the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), we gave aid in areas such as education, health and agriculture.

Graduates of universities went abroad with the World University Service and Canadian University Service Overseas. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was considered normal to go to newly independent Rwanda or Tanzania and work to establish universities there. We dropped racial barriers and opened our doors to the world.

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Our climate has also been a formative force on our national character. Our climate is our character. You cannot live in a country with seasons that range from freezing to brutally hot without acknowledging a need for co-operation. After every major snowstorm there seems to be a front-page story about a farmer trudging through the drifts to invite stranded motorists to come and warm up or spend the night.

Reading these stories, we recognize ourselves. In the recent Fort McMurray fire, 1.5 million acres burned and 88,000 people were evacuated. Only two died – as a result of a traffic accident. In 2003, during a scorching heat wave that hit France, 14,802 mostly elderly people died from heat-related causes in their homes. Too few thought to knock on doors and ask if anyone needed help.

For some years now, there has been a phenomenon in coffee shops known as "pay it forward." Someone in line will pay for the next customer's coffee, and that person, in turn, will pay for the next person behind them. Eventually, of course, the chain is broken; someone doesn't pay it forward and the generosity ends.

But the fun is in seeing how long that takes. A few years back, a record was set in a Tim Hortons franchise in Winnipeg. Over the course of three hours, on a freezing morning just before Christmas, 228 people in the drive-thru line paid for the order of the next customer.

These acts are something that grow out of our inhospitable climate and the way in which we were originally welcomed by the Indigenous peoples.

Today, in any citizenship ceremony in Canada (and we have 2,900 a year), if there are 49 new citizens taking the oath, they will come, on average, from 25 different countries. This astounding feat is matched nowhere else. Eighty-six per cent of people who move to Canada stay to become citizens – the highest rate in the world. (The U.S. rate is just half that, 44 per cent.) I believe people take up Canadian citizenship because they know, having lived here for three to five years, that we want them to be citizens. We don't declare love to them, because that's not what Canadians do, but they see that they will be able to be at ease here, that we are willing to include them and that they will be able to live their lives relatively free of rejection and stereotypes.

Immigrants who become citizens take it very seriously and, as the findings of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) survey, Ballots & Belonging, indicate, their exercise of the vote shows that. Immigrants who'd been Canadian citizens for less than 10 years turned out 70 per cent for the federal election last fall. Immigrants with more than 10 years turned out at 76 per cent.

Even before becoming citizens, immigrants volunteer at a rate of 38 per cent, which is slightly below the 45 per cent of people (over 15) who were born in Canada. But immigrants tend to donate more time – 162 hours a year, on average, versus 152. Immigrants are also just as likely to donate money, but they give more of it – in 2010, an average of $554 versus $409 for those who are Canadian-born. Even immigrants with lower incomes contribute more – those with an annual household income of less than $40,000 gave an average of $404 compared with $214 for their homegrown counterparts.

As for political engagement, 78 per cent of new citizens indicated in the ICC's survey that they had discussed the last election and searched for information about it and their local candidate. Three-quarters said they'd voted in their first Canadian election because voting is important and they wanted to have their voices heard. Now, 13 per cent of our members of Parliament are foreign-born.

Looking at these statistics, it is evident that the integration process fostered by citizenship is moving at a good pace. Not that we should be complacent. The ICC stats also show that (political parties, take note) only one-quarter of the new citizens had had candidates actually knock on their doors. And because newcomers are seizing upon the space being made for them, Canadian-born citizens should realize that they have to participate as well.

Giving all Canadians their rightful turn

Voting is only one aspect of the way in which we can help people to belong; the important thing about our relationship to each other as citizens and to the nation is the social mobility made accessible through our interaction with others, our public education, and through the democratic freedoms we enjoy.

Within the five or six years that newcomers usually have to wait to become full-fledged citizens in Canada, they learn how to assess what their life will be like if they commit to this country. This period of engagement seems to be particularly fruitful; it has been to our benefit and will continue to be – as of 2030, Canada's net population growth will be entirely attributable to immigration. This will make it possible for us to continue to nurture the kind of society we have established: its medical benefits, public education, cultural activities and, of course, infrastructure such as roads and hospitals.

If we do not have a steady increase in population, we won't have the money required to support all this. We need our immigrants and new citizens to become part of Canada if we are to maintain the country as we know and love it. And we will change and adapt as we receive people from around the world.

For most of my adult life, I have watched people drive through an intersection in my neighbourhood. It's a four-way-stop, and everyone always takes their rightful turn. Never have I seen an accident or someone trying to run straight through.

This is, for me, a metaphor of how we have behaved in Canada: We are willing to wait for our turn – because we know that we're going to get one.

Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th governor-general of Canada (1999-2005), is co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. She also delivered the CBC Massey Lectures in 2014, entitled Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship (available from House of Anansi Press).

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