Canada Day means you can see Canadian citzenship happening in front of you.
Outside the Shipyards Park pavilion, bordered by black speakers and rows of concert lights, 24 immigrants, representing eight countries, sit in three rows facing the stage. The sun tries to come through the heavy clouds above us.
Hundreds of Yukoners fill the bleachers as if they are renewing their vows.
Ian Basso, “my” immigration officer but surely claimed by everyone here as “their” immigration officer, tells those 24, “These are not merely words to be repeated. You are affirming your commitment to Canada, your loyalty to Canada and vowing to do your best for Canada.”
They are led in the oath of Canadian Citizenship, at first their backs to us. Then Audrey McLaughlin, Yukoner, first female leader of a national party and officer of the Order of Canada, asks them to turn around and wave at all the fellow Canadian Citizens around them. When they do, they are all smiling, especially a woman in a bright green dress. She is waving and beaming.
McLaughlin continues, “Very few of us share the same past, but we can share the same future.”
Larry Bagnell, our MP, asks them to look around them, at the hundreds of Yukoners who have gathered to welcome them. “They want you to succeed. If you need anything — see any Yukoner here.”
Ian Basso quotes the Latin motto of the Order of Canada: desiderantes meliorem patriam, which means “they desire a better country.” He applies it to this group of immigrants.
I looked up the phrase — it’s taken from the Bible.
“And they admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:14-16)
Bev Buckway tells us Whitehorse is a “fine capital city” and it does feel as if it has been prepared for those who come and live here.
Ione Christensen, former senator and officer of the Order of Canada, connects the new citizens with those first peoples across the Bering Strait, then the Klondike Stampeders, then those building the Alaska Highway and those travelling it to get here. We are a connected stream of those desiring a better country.
Geraldine Van Bibber, commissioner of the Yukon, tells us, “I can only imagine what it feels like to come to this wide open space and make it home.”
Yukoners, especially, she says, are “a curious lot by nature.” They will ask these new citizens questions — who, what, where, when and why they have come.
The woman in the green dress has no idea that she will experience Yukoner curiosity quite so soon. Her name is Zoya Lewis, from Russia, her friends tell me. They know why she is beaming. They encourage me to talk to her.
When I move through the crowd of hugging people, I feel awkward interviewing Zoya. Every few minutes they freeze in place for a picture. But she’s so happy and she wants to tell me why.
She arrived in Canada in January of 2004 to 40 below. “It looked like outer Siberia!”
She’s from St. Petersburg and met her husband, Wayne Lewis of Atlin, online. They dated for a year and were married in Russia. After the wedding, immigration rules changed in the midst of her application, causing a six-week delay in St. Petersburg, waiting for the only doctor who could approve her application to get back from holidays.
I asked her why she went ahead with this step of citizenship, after being here for a few years. “I wanted to have the same rights as my husband. I found here a good man, a good job and a good home.” Canada even allows her to keep her dual citizenship.
They rush off, a small group around Zoya, to go to a celebration dinner.
I look around me. There are a lot of smiling Yukoners.
Why do they come?
Sure, they are welcoming their friends, now legally transformed into Canadians.
But maybe, too, they want to absorb the radiating joy from those 24 smiles into their own Canadian hearts, transforming them, for a day, into new Canadians.
Jerome Stueart chose this city on purpose. Maybe you did, too. He’d like to hear from you. Write to him at email@example.com.
PHOTO: WAYNE LEWIS