Happy Canada Day! Reflections of an immigrant.

So today marks just over 13 years since I immigrated to Canada from England. In June 2003 I shipped 10 boxes, 4 suitcases, a package of pictures and the contents of my office from the North of England to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

My dog, Molly I, was meant to have made the trip with me but unfortunately a few months before, when having vet checks as part of the process for bringing her, it had become apparent that she was riddled with arthritis and in a lot of pain. Having been my faithful companion through a massive car accident in 2000 and supporting me through my long recovery, it was time for me to put her needs first, and so with her head on my lap she crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

So, a few month later, I came to Canada on my own. I’d been recruited by the University of British Columbia to join the Centre for Healthcare Innovation and Improvement. Unfortunately when I first arrived in Canada there was a delay with my work permit so I couldn’t actually start work until mid July. I had rented an apartment, with the help of the wife of one of my new colleagues, and was living in Coal Harbour within walking distance of Stanley Park.

Unfortunately in my reading up on Canada there were a few things that I had missed! The first I am now very embarrassed about. When I was applying for jobs, in 2002, I hadn’t actually realised that Canada and the United States of America were different countries. I’d grown up just labelling the continent ‘North America’ in geography classes.

Thankfully it didn’t take long for me to realise the difference and to understand that calling a Canadian ‘”American” can be as insulting as calling me European. I’m English. British if I have to be. But I’m not European. Which interestingly has far more meaning right now after the recent Brexit referendum.

The second fact that I’d missed was Canada Day!

So on July 1st 2003 I’d been in Vancouver for a few days and was slowly working things out. I’d got past the fact that all the light switches are upside down, that living rooms don’t have centre-ceiling lights (and that the light switches in living rooms work sockets that you plug lamps into instead). I’d even got used to driving an automatic vehicle on the wrong side of the road and that red lights, no longer meant stop until they turn green; they just mean stop until you can turn right, or left (if it’s a one way street).

However, somehow I’d missed the fact that July 1st was a special day. So that day, I got up and headed into the Children & Women’s Hospitals to carry on unpacking boxes in my new office. Which, by the way, had been used in the making of the X-Files!

Now, I did wonder a little where everybody was but, being a hospital and the fact that it was early morning I just assumed that my colleagues, as they were almost all medical doctors as well as researchers, were busy with morning rounds. As for the administrative staff, I knew that the Centre Admin Director was away for the weekend, as she’d mentioned it earlier in the week, so I really didn’t think twice.

A few hours later my office is starting to look pretty good and I decide to head home. This is when I start to realise that something might be up. In the few hours that I’ve been in the office the streets have turned red and white. There are people sat on the side of the road and chairs are lined up along the roadside. Street vendors are all over the place and balloons are drifting in the sky.

As I turn onto the street where I can usually access the underground parking for my building I come up against a barricade and see Royal Canadian Mounted Police in real life, for the first time. From the driver’s seat of a car, those horses are HUGE!! The RCMP officer waves me on. The problem is that I don’t know where I’m being waved on to.

Thankfully, he must have recognised my confusion and he waves over an officer on foot patrol who clarifies with me that I live just a few yards down and kindly explains that I should have received a notice informing me that the road was going to be closed for several hours that day, but that he’d make an exception and let me through the barricade to get home. I suspect that he realised that if he didn’t let me through I didn’t have a clue what to do or where to go and would probably cause more confusion in my ignorance!

A little later, and I’m home and decide that I’d best find out what all the fuss was about.  I soon learned that July 1st was “Canada Day” and that it is federal statutory holiday celebrating the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the Constitution Act, which united three colonies into a single country called Canada within the British Empire.

Being English I’d never celebrated a country’s independence before.

The closest I’d come would be Guy Fawkes and Bonfire night on November 5th.  Which is a little different, as Bonfire night is about commemorating the safety of King James 1st from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. The event is celebrated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Though, I do wonder, alongside many of my compatriots, whether we’re celebrating Fawkes’ execution or honouring his attempt to do away with the government!

Anyway, I headed out into Vancouver and thoroughly enjoyed the parade and celebrations.  However, in my naivety at that time I had no idea of the complexities and concerns of Canada’s history on this day.

A few years later and I’m studying Canadian history in preparation for my Citizenship exams. This is when I first started to comprehend the completely different cultural perspective on citizenship that exists in Canada to that which I had grown up with.

As somebody born in England, I’m English.  My ancestry probably includes Scottish and Irish heritage given my red hair and pale skin and if I go back far enough I’m sure that I can probably trace my family back to the Roman Empire via a few Vikings along the way.

In fact, I grew up learning history that included the Vikings, the Elizabethans, the Tudor and Stuarts, and the Romans; places like Stonehenge were all around me. History was all around me, always. I thought nothing of the fact that the first house that I ever owned was over a 150 years old and was a 2 up, 2 down row house built to house the mill workers over a century before. I was just grateful that one of the ‘2 up’ rooms had been split in two so that there was an indoor bathroom as we still had the outhouse/privy in the back yard!

My connection to my country was just innate. Nothing that I ever thought about or really considered. My roots were long and went back centuries.

Then I came to Canada and heard people describing themselves as Scottish or German, but when I asked they were often 2nd or 3rd generation Canadian, and had never even visited these countries that they claimed as their heritage. I found this confusing.

Now I was reading about First Nations and the European settlers and the resulting treaties. It sounded very polite to me. Where were the stories of rape and pillage? Where were the stories of continents being conquered and constant changes in monarchies?

It took time for me to understand. It took getting to know indigenous peoples on a personal level to realize that while it may be described as a far more polite process; the reality is that the same domination of one culture over another happened. That cultural genocide was taking place in what to me, before, had just been a small footnote in my history books.

I took the time to learn, to ask questions, to explore Canada’s history and heritage.  I learned about the First Nations Métis and Inuits who occupied Canada long before Europeans ever set foot in the country.

Then in 2009 I was offered a unique opportunity. I had moved from Vancouver, BC to Edmonton, Alberta in 2006 to be appointed as the first Research Chair in Western Canada in Health Informatics with the University of Alberta. Having spent 4 years running a multi-million dollar research group I was interested in a new challenge.

Algoma University had recently gained independence in 2008 and was looking to hire a Research Chair to establish and run a brand new Health Informatics Research Centre for 5 years. Algoma University has a unique history in that it is physically located in the buildings, and on the grounds, of the Shingwauk Residential School. As such it has been a place of education for many years but it is also the site of much historical trauma and loss.  Having benefited myself from attending a small university as a student the small size of Algoma really appealed to me. The opportunity to work with a community that I had grown to respect so much was incredibly engaging. So in 2010 I took up appointment here in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Six years later and it’s Canada Day once more. So I’m taking the opportunity to look back over my 13 years here in Canada and see how far I’ve come. Not only from the West Coast of the country, across the Rockies to Alberta and then through Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Ontario but in my understanding of Canadian Culture and heritage

So today it is with pride that I celebrate Canada Day, as a Canadian, while also respecting the fact that for many of my First Nations friends, colleagues and students today isn’t a day of celebration.

Having recognised that, I love the press release distributed by the Assembly of First Nations today. National Chief Perry Bellegarde drew upon the history of the First Nations contributions to this country, and all that live here, and then moved past the hurt and preponderance on past travesties to take us a step towards a united future with his closing statement: “This must be our goal.  A stronger, more just country for all of us will ensure that all the peoples of this land have reason to celebrate when we join together next year to mark Canada’s 150th birthday.”

Chief Bellegarde, I honour you, for recognizing that now is the time to move forwards together; that the time has come for us to unite.

In a week where the press has been inundated with the ramifications of the vote for England to leave the EU I am delighted to be able to say that I live in a country where diversity is recognized and appreciated.

Where our Prime Minister is committed to “…a country where everyone is equal”.

I will always be English, but today I’m also very proud to be Canadian.

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