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TORONTO, Ont./Troy Media/ – It may come as a surprise but Canadian citizenship is just 70 years old. After passing Parliament on June 27, 1946, the Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect on Jan. 1, 1947. The first citizenship ceremony, during which 26 individuals received their certificates, took place in Ottawa two days later.
Although the concept of a Canadian citizen dated back to the Immigration Act of 1910, it was an identity subset rather than the primary marker. Essentially, Canadians were British subjects, albeit subjects living in an independent, self-governing country.
Canada’s evolution from colonial status was gradual. Unlike, say, the American experience, there was no war of independence and little, if any, push-back from London.
For generations after Confederation 150 years ago, the majority of English-speaking Canadians viewed Britain as a benign mother country. And faced with a much larger, boisterous neighbour to the south, there was comfort in having a close familial relationship with another major power. In an uncertain world, counterweights mattered.
Still, geographical distance and the passage of time inevitably changed things, as did the cultural influence of the nearby United States. If Canadians didn’t want to be Americans – and they didn’t – they increasingly weren’t overseas Britons either.
The credit for the citizenship initiative is generally attributed to Paul Martin, the father of the 21st century prime minister of the same name. Then a cabinet minister in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government, Martin Sr. is said to have been deeply influenced by a post-Second World War visit to the Canadian military cemetery at Dieppe, France. Visiting war cemeteries invariably turns the mind to considerations of identity.
Canadians had been legally defined as British subjects. The Citizenship Act changed that – they would now be citizens of their own country. Practically and politically sovereign since the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Canada was taking a major symbolic step towards full psychological sovereignty.
Interestingly, preferential status for non-Canadian British subjects persisted for several decades. And thanks to a quirk in the circumstances in which Ireland had left the Commonwealth, Irish citizens were able to retain British subject status. Thus, as a mid-1960s immigrant, I cast my first-ever vote in the 1968 federal election – almost three years before becoming a Canadian citizen.
As ever, though, history doesn’t move in straight lines. While identity and citizenship once seemed inextricably and exclusively blended, maintaining multiple citizenships and carrying multiple passports is now relatively commonplace.
What does this mean for the concept of national loyalty? If, say, you have both a Canadian and an American passport, which country has a claim on your primary allegiance? Should, heaven forbid, push ever come to shove, whose side would you be on?
I suspect many people would shrug at the question, even dismiss it as pointless troublemaking. Compared to the convenience and heritage acknowledgement provided by multiple passports, the remote possibility of a substantive loyalty conflict seems meaninglessly abstract.
Others, however, might beg to differ.
Theresa May, the new British prime minister, is probably one of these others. In a controversial speech several months ago, she said this: If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.
May was talking about the nation as an extension of family. Like a marriage, it entails a qualitatively different relationship than you have with the rest of the world. Reciprocal loyalty, itself inherently exclusive, is a requirement.
More to the story: Are ‘citizens of the world’ simply ideological vagabonds? by Pat Murphy
On a lighter note â€¦
Who, you might wonder, had the distinction of becoming Canada’s first citizen on that January day 70 years ago?
The honour – citizenship certificate 0001 – was bestowed on the serving prime minister, Mackenzie King. The choice was appropriately symbolic – and rank always has its privileges.
But while King’s family had been prominently settled in Canada for over a century, not all of the initial 26 citizens had such a long residency pedigree.
The proud possessor of certificate 0002 was 87-year-old Wasyl Eleniak, one of Canada’s first Ukrainian immigrants. Yousuf Karsh, the famous Armenian-born portrait photographer, was also among the first inductees.
Even then, Canada was reaching beyond its 1867 roots.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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Tags: Canadian history