‘It feels something was missing’: Pandemic forces new Canadians’ citizenship ceremonies onto Zoom

Hopefully we will be back to more regular in person ceremonies but with social distancing, no handshakes and likely masks, in the next few months:

It’s a moment that Haseena Hotaki and all immigrants long for: taking the oath, shaking hands with the citizenship judge, waving the Canadian flag and cheering with other new citizens.

Instead, on this big day, the 29-year-old Afghani immigrant found herself alone in the living room of her Toronto apartment, in front of her laptop awaiting the appearance of Judge Hardish Dhaliwal on her computer screen so she could be sworn in on Zoom.

“I have heard all these stories from others about what happened at these ceremonies. I pictured what my own ceremony would look like, holding a Canadian flag in a room with other new citizens,” said Hotaki, who came here in 2012 under a government sponsorship.

“Did it really just happen? I just had this over an online meeting through Zoom?” asked the Kandahar native after the 30-minute solo virtual event hosted recently by the judge and four immigration and citizenship officers. “It feels something was missing.”

It wasn’t the dream ceremony Hotaki envisioned when she passed her citizenship exam last September, but it’s still better than a further delay in becoming a full Canadian.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada had to cancel all citizenship ceremonies in mid-March because it’s impossible to enforce social-distancing at these functions attended by new citizens and their loved ones.

Immigration department spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon said officials began holding virtual ceremonies on April 1, beginning with individuals and families whose ceremonies had been cancelled and who had contacted IRCC with urgent reasons for needing citizenship, such as employment requirements.

Last year, an average of 20,000 immigrants became new citizens each month. To date since April, 96 ceremonies have been held.

“An important aspect of holding online group ceremonies is the verification of applicants’ identities, which is important to the integrity of the program, especially in an online environment,” said Fenelon.

A virtual ceremony is similar to an in-person one.

In Hotaki’s case, she was asked to show the immigration officers on the screen three pieces of picture ID before she took her oath in English and French with Dhaliwal and signed her citizenship certificate — with an e-signature.

There were no RCMP officers in Red Serge present or singing of the national anthem.

The process wasn’t without its hiccups. Hotaki said her ceremony was twice disrupted due to internet problems that forced her to log onto Zoom again.

“It made me nervous,” said Hotaki, who worked for international aid groups as an English translator in Afghanistan and in the not-for-profit sector after coming to Canada. She started her bachelor program in international development at the University of Toronto last fall.

Hotaki picked a traditional Afghan kochi dress, worn only for celebrations, for her citizenship ceremony to honour this special moment of her life. But she was disappointed there was no one around her to share her joy other than her two young daughters.

The whole experience was surreal, she said, until a citizenship officer asked her to cut and void her permanent residence card.

“The whole ceremony was like a dream. When I looked at my PR card in small pieces, that’s the only thing that seemed real,” said Hotaki, who has founded her own group, Humanity First for Peace, to provide education programs for girls and women in Afghanistan.

“I am grateful for the opportunities Canada has given me and I am extremely proud of who I am today. I have come a long way and feel I finally belong.”

Hotaki kissed and hugged her daughters after the ceremony, then called her parents in Afghanistan to share the news before ordering takeout from her favourite Thai restaurant to celebrate a new leaf of her life in Canada.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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