Belonging, nationalities and Canada

canadian flag

As a migrant, I’ve started to think about the concept of ‘belonging.’ I never truly felt like I belonged to any particular piece of land. Similarly, I never thought of myself as ‘entitled’ to any land. And before I go any further, don’t worry. I will not say anything about ‘feeling like a world citizen.’ This is not what I have in mind.

Belonging, in the sense of holding a nationality, is a strange concept. If you think about it, you will realize that it’s very arbitrary. Some people are born in Canada, others are born in Russia, yet others are born in Turkey. This is a spatial concept of nationality, in which it is implied that you are meant to spend your life where you were born. No one really explains why.

Is it not absurd, though? Let’s take Canada, for instance. All humans born in Canada are called Canadians. I’ll just skip the question asking why that’s the case. Instead, let’s ask: “Since when is this so?”

Many of you know that Canada was not even a thing until July 1, 1867. Before that, the various provinces that make up Canada today were colonies of the British Empire. Then on Canada Day, Canada became a country. United forever, all of its citizens proud bearers of the adjective: “Canadian.”

Is it that simple though? Especially in the case of a settler colonial country. The name “Canada” is not necessarily what the Indigenous peoples call this land that Canadians call “ours.” The adjective “Canadian” is certainly not what they call themselves.

Fireworks Canada Day
Canada Day fireworks (image Blixt A. via Flickr Creative Commons)

Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be an expert on the semantics of Canadianness. I would, however, like to get you to start thinking about it. As far as I’m concerned, I want to talk about migration and belonging. I bring up the colonial history of Canada for that very reason.

Before Canada, before Britain, before Europeans, there were people living on this land. Through the cunning use of treaties, this land was converted into a political entity, which, in turn, authorized itself with the right to give away citizenships. Long story short, any European settler who came to this New World was an expatriate, or simply put, a migrant.

Unless you are an Indigenous person, you are a migrant on this land – just like I am. But still, because you were probably born here, you are Canadian and I am not. Absurd isn’t it?

I’ve been studying in Canada for the past three years. That also means that I’ve been living here for three years. I’ve been experiencing this land just like any other Canadian – and in fact, I’m probably more Canadian than a three-year-old baby whose parents are Canadians. Yet still, that’s not the case.

There’s something missing in this analysis – or whatever it is that you would like to call this. You see, nothing can prevent me from feeling Canadian if I so darn please. I can freely feel like I belong here, if I so desire. But that means nothing!

Canada is a country and a political entity, not the land it happens to occupy. If the borders of this political entity were placed elsewhere, then that place would be Canada. This political entity has the monopoly over the power to give away citizenships and declare nationalities. It is because of this political entity that a three-year-old baby born to Canadians is Canadian and I am not.

A political entity does not care about feelings. It does not care about historical context. It does not care whether it’s right or wrong. It cares about legitimacy and legality. What determines the legitimacy and legality of a political entity? Curiously enough, it itself does that job. It declares that it is the legitimate representative of Canadians and that it has the legal power to determine who gets to be Canadian.

“But that’s what countries are supposed to do – that’s literally how the current world system works!” Interesting, isn’t it? Surely, this system was once based on the idea that communities should have the inherent right to decide who gets to live with them. But the current world system, as my strawperson has so eloquently put it, is not really a system of communities. A community implies intimacy – a country can hardly be an intimate being.

If intimacy was still a thing in the current world system, I’d be able to go be a contributing member of the community – you know, pay taxes, join the labour force, do community service – and then I’d be declared a bonafide Canadian. But because the current world system is based on countries I have to jump through so many loops. I have to have myself declared legitimate and appeal to appropriate legal customs in order to become Canadian.

My point is, when you’re celebrating Canada Day, make sure you distinguish the land from the country, and the community from the state. Most of us are migrants on this land; but some of us have more rights than others. Why should I allow some artificial entity tell me whether or not I belong here? Why should I have to pamper some artificial entity to grant me acceptance?

Happy early Canada Day everyone.

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