Keenan: Citizenship should be marked by a more meaningful ritual than just a mouse click

Another commentary against the change, proposing a more expansive approach to citizenship ceremonies and their importance as ritual:

If there’s one thing that’s become clear from the whole kerfuffle over a government plan to replace citizenship oath-swearing ceremonies with the tick of a box on an online form, it’s that many of us feel there’s real value in a real initiation ritual. 

I probably don’t need to repeat the arguments that have been well articulated by others: making it akin to the “I accept the terms and conditions” formality of social media sign-ups “cheapens” the whole process, as the CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship told the Star; “the act of swearing allegiance to one’s country before a citizenship judge is a powerful, and moving ceremony,” wrote Sergio Marchi, who was initiated in such a ceremony after immigrating from Argentina before becoming Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and presiding over many other such ceremonies; those ceremonies “were some of the most moving, joyful, and meaningful events I have ever attended,” wrote Rev. Mark McLennan on our letters page. Amen, amen, amen. I agree.

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in such a ceremony at Fort York — members of the community of existing citizens like myself joined round-table discussions with citizenship candidates being sworn in that afternoon to discuss what it means to be Canadian, what we valued about this country, what we felt about our rights and obligations. Then we witnessed the swearing of the oath that made this group formally a part of our country’s membership — and we were invited to also swear the oath to reaffirm our own allegiance. As someone born in Canada, it was the first time in my life I had ever spoken those words, or ever done anything to actively confirm my own citizenship. For the new citizens, it was an important, joyful milestone day marked by a powerful ritual. But it held great meaning for me too, prompting some welcome reflection and gratitude — not just for being able to witness the ceremony for others, but being able to participate in it myself. 

I wonder if, instead of Tinder-izing the process into a quick swipe-and-send, we should further cement this powerful ritual as a right of passage available to all Canadians, including those who are automatically Canadian citizens by birth.

In the Catholic faith tradition in which I was raised, children become members of the religion through baptism soon after birth, in a choice made by their parents. But at adolescence, they are invited to participate in a confirmation ceremony where they make their own choice to join the church as adults — a process that includes an elaborate preparation course and an elaborate ceremony usually presided over by a bishop or cardinal. 

In the Jewish tradition, there’s a similar and perhaps more widely known tradition in the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, in which members of the faith — usually born into it — have an elaborate coming-out ritual and celebration to mark their maturity as people and members of their community. Other faith and ethnic communities around the world have related ceremonies of adult initiation, or coming of age, from the Amish rumspringa to the Japanese seijin-no-hi to the Filipino debut.

It feels like Canada could use a similar ritual marking an embrace of mature citizenship, even for those who are already citizens. It could be a moving, joyful, meaningful event for them for many of the same reasons it is for new Canadians. 

Birthright citizenship, in Canada, is an important part of our legal and cultural tradition in itself, of course — the rights and obligations of citizenship extend to natural-born Canadians automatically, they are not contingent on any action they need to take or oath they need to swear, and I don’t think they should be. But it would be nice, I think, and potentially powerful, if all of us (those from here and from away alike) were invited to participate in ceremonies where we recognize and formalize our connection to our country ourselves, acknowledging and embracing what many of us inherited by accident of birth even as others are going to great lengths to obtain the same status. This process — optional, but maybe expected — could be build into the curriculum (or extracurricular schedule) of schools alongside civics lessons. It would be an educational opportunity — much needed if reactions to those periodic “could you pass the citizenship application test” stories that go around are any guide — as well as a chance to both reflect on and celebrate what citizenship means.

The click-a-box modification to the existing process was apparently proposed as a way to clear pandemic-induced backlogs in citizenship ceremonies. But my own sense is that one important thing the pandemic taught us — to repeat a theme I wrote on only recently — it’s that a lot of our life tasks can be accomplished online from home, but that much of life is less full and meaningful if we do everything that way. During the long period of isolation, most of us sorely missed the public ceremonies of weddings and funerals and graduations, and learned just how pale an imitation attending by video conference is. Rituals are powerful, they imbue the things they recognize with significance, marking important occasions and decisions and milestones in our memories and for our communities.

Many of us seem to recognize that citizenship initiation deserves a public in-person ritual. Maybe instead of streamlining that process into meaninglessness, we should expand it so more people get to experience its meaning. 

Source: Keenan: Citizenship should be marked by a more meaningful ritual than just a mouse click

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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