I’ve known you now for close to four decades. You and I first met when I was a scrappy nine year old brown kid who arrived on your soil from England by way of Iran. Your grand open spaces shocked me after the boisterous crowded streets of Tehran, and the more placid yet still crowded townships of England. You took my breath away with the way your Prairie sky could change shades from cobalt to cerulean to midnight blue, and the fact we could drive for miles sometimes without seeing anyone on the road. Yet on first meeting you also broke my fragile heart.
As hard as I tried to fit in here at first, I couldn’t. I was made fun of, spat on at school, failed for no reason when trying for another Girl Guides badge. I stood out for reasons of both skin colour and ethnicity, and at first it made me very afraid to be with you. The never-ending whiteness of your winter landscape, and of the people surrounding us, seemed like impenetrable barriers. Where was your heart, I wondered, as I closed mine off to you.
Yet despite this reality, I also a felt a nascent sense of belonging in those early years, diving into the shockingly cold yet serene lakes of turquoise nestled into your Rocky mountains. I found my imagination sparked in the light-filled public library a twenty minute walk from my childhood abode. (Everywhere I have lived across this country, your libraries have been my second home). I was cared for through multiple hospital visits throughout my childhood where as a new immigrant family we never had to worry about the costs. And then there were always people who appeared like magic at times when most needed… a Superintendent who agreed to send me to a different school district, a neighbour who gifted a crocheted square which I slept with throughout my entire childhood, a teacher who helped me create a high school chapter of Amnesty International that lent a sense of purpose to my days. Through the thorny brambles of suspicion surrounding us, your goodness found a way to seep past the protected façade I learned to put on.
As a young adult I began to travel across your vast landscape, gradually delighting in the diversity that I learned is such an essential part of who you are. I carefully picked sea-tossed pebbles off the wild ruggedness of your eastern shores, while being welcomed into the homes of the most bighearted people. I took the ferry to various Gulf Islands off the coast of Vancouver and traversed the landscape that brought the Group of Seven to fame. The defining moments of growth for you over this last quarter century are also mine. I wept at first learning the plight of Indigenous peoples across this country through the Oka standoff in 1990. I panicked at the 1995 Quebec referendum and the potential loss of one of our largest provinces. I marched in Quebec city against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement (FTAA) in 2001 with a hundred thousand others, and then again to protest Bush’s invasion of Iraq two years later. I have voted in every election since reaching legal age and have organized national political campaigns sweeping shore to shore. I have talked to your media and politicians and jostled for a better, more just Canada. Just last month I raised my voice with millions of others across our proud nation at the victory of our Raptors basketball team. Over the years, you and I, we became close.
I am now an adult in middle-age who has found her sea-legs in Toronto, marrying another of your adopted brood, a brown boy from Pakistan who moved here too when he was young. Together we have started a business teaching others about what it means to belong. Our two children attend the elementary school across from our house and twice a year we participate in a street barbecue we initiated that has been going on for more than fifteen years. Although I still live with the fear of being rejected, I have learned over time that your people’s generosity outweighs their fear of difference. My adult self has been fermented in these waters of what it means to be Canadian, and I no longer see myself as separate from you.
When I see news of my motherland these days — Iran — I am curious yet I recognize that she is no longer my mother. You are. You have become my family’s home, and in your striving to do and to be better, you illuminate the Spiritus Mundi. It gives me hope and lends a sense of safety to see you engaged in the on-going messy work of democracy, the vocal cacophony driving growth forward. I have faith in your struggle to make way for new peoples, for new forms of expression, because I trust that deep in your bones you know that our diversity is truly what makes us stronger.
On this 152nd birthday, I want to say “thank you” for taking me in back when I was a scared big-haired kid from a land far away, and for allowing me the freedom to struggle over the years to find my voice. I am grateful to live in a country where I can envision the possibility of a future where belonging is truly a birthright for all. Oh Canada, you have won my heart. I love you, and more importantly, I believe in you. As long as you’ll have me, I will work with all my might to make sure we are both the best versions of ourselves that we can be: the best Canadian and the best Canada.
Happy birthday, old friend.