What I learned watching new citizens at a swearing-in ceremony

Steve Paikin
Published on Feb 22, 2016

For the first time in my life, I have visited the place where cynicism goes to die.

When you've spent more than 30 years in journalism, it's easy to become jaded. You've heard too many empty promises from politicians and too much punditry from people who really don't know what they're talking about.

So when you see something that is truly heartwarming, that doesn't contain an ounce of cynicism, you take note.

Such was the case in Scarborough last week when I watched about 70 newcomers from 24 countries sing O Canada, and proclaim the oath to become new Canadian citizens.

Citizenship judge Albert Wong presided over the ceremony and there couldn't have been a more apt person to do so. Wong, of Chinese ethnicity but originally from Malaysia, came to Canada at age 13. His dad moved the family to Sudbury, where he got a job sweeping floors at Inco. Like so many immigrants' stories, all of his children have achieved great things in their new country.

After graduating from high school, Albert Wong went right into the Canadian military and spent 38 years in the navy. He served for a year in Afghanistan in 2005-06 on Canada's strategic advisory team and saw first-hand how good governance is intimately wrapped up in a country's success or failure.

That's one of the reasons why, after the citizenship swearing-in ceremony is over, Wong stresses the importance of asking the roomful of new citizens to line up courteously if any of them want their pictures taken with him. Of course, they all do.

“Many of these people are from countries where they've never lined up before,” he explains. “It's been survival of the fittest. So this is my chance to show them that in Canada, we don't like queue jumpers. If we don't have that sense of how to govern ourselves, then the strongest man wins every time. And we're not that society.”

Wong has watched Canada evolve from a country that denied Asians citizenship and the vote after the Second World War, but eventually agreed to it after soldiers of Asian descent who fought for Canada demanded it.

Now, when he swears in Asian families as new Canadian citizens, he makes a point of asking the children what kind of art or music they like.

“I know immigrants will push their kids into math and science,” he says. “I tell them that I'm going to visit their schools and see what kind of art they've done. The parents need to know there's more to being a Canadian than math and science.”

To that end, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, founded and run by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul, offers every new citizen a package that includes one year's free membership to every significant cultural institution in Canada. Wong says the program has proved to be highly successful in getting new Canadians to embrace the country's history and culture.

Naturally, I can't leave Wong's office without asking about the one issue that helped decide the last Canadian election. What does he do when a Muslim woman wants to take the oath while covering her face?

“It does happen, although very infrequently,” he says. “My practice is to say, 'Would you be willing to lower your niqab at the point of saying the oath?' And 90 per cent do.”

For the 10 per cent who won't for religious or cultural reasons, Wong arranges to have the woman taken to a private area where a female officer will hear the oath.

“But then she'll come right back into the main room and we'll all say the oath together,” he says. “That ceremony is important because it brings everyone together. We say the oath collectively. Because you're saying, I'm now one of you.”

To watch these new Canadians sing their new national anthem, to watch them say the oath altogether, then to see the joy in their faces as they have their pictures taken with the man that made their citizenship official, well, let's just say it's emotionally overwhelming.

I'm hoping to keep it together Tuesday, when I'll have the honour of presiding over a citizenship ceremony at the beautiful new Ismaili Centre in Toronto. As an officer of the Order of Canada, apparently, I'm permitted to do such things. They asked, and I thought, having never seen such a ceremony before, why not?

I've never been much of a cynic to begin with. But if you want to see where cynicism goes to die, check out any swearing-in ceremony. I was lucky enough to be born in Canada. But these people chose Canada. And now they're taking the next step and choosing to be Canadian.

It's a beautiful thing. 

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