He walked into the room dressed in traditional black robes to preside over our citizenship ceremony last month, but Judge Tanh Hai Ngo is anything but the stereotypical pompous judge.
His warm smile and cheerful demeanour put all citizens-to-be at ease. From 41 countries, 80 people stood with their right hands raised swearing allegiance to the Her Majesty the Queen and to Canada. Among them, my husband and I, born and bred in England. Our journey was perhaps not as inspiring. We did not come seeking safety, nor freedom. We have been privileged enough to have comforts of all kind in Britain. We did come seeking a change, and that is precisely what we received in the form of a more sane pace of life.
Judge Tanh Hai Ngo though, came to Canada fleeing Vietnam and communism over 40 years ago. He arrived with his wife and children and was looking for freedoms, safety, and prosperity. Watching him and listening to the intense enthusiasm he had as he spoke, it was not difficult to see that he has fulfilled his dreams in Canada.
“Canada is the best country in the world,” he told all participants, and from the huge smile on his face and warmth in his eyes, it was easy to see, he meant it.
He spoke at length to those present about how Canada is a wonderful place to live and that citizenship comes with so many rights, rights we as Canadians cherish. He listed some of those rights: the right to practice our faith in peace; the right to think freely; to speak freely. As he did so, he did not lecture, or speak in a condescending manner. He spoke from the heart and earnestly. In Vietnam, it would have been impossible to do any of these things 40 years ago. He went on to speak about the condition of those rights: citizenship certainly comes with rights and freedoms, but it also comes with responsibility. He went on to explain to people how important it was for them to get actively involved in our democratic process and vote.
“I stress on that in the ceremony,” he said as we chatted afterwards. “I especially stress it because I know what it is like, in some countries people don’t feel their vote counts, or they feel they don’t need to bother to vote. They come here and think that everything’s okay, that they have their life and they let everyone else take care of voting. That’s not right,” he said.
I could tell he felt obliged to give us that message in particular because it might be the last time we hear it before we went out into Canada as full citizens.
His words make sense. According to many studies, voter turnout has been declining, even in established democracies. The United States has a significantly low turn-out for votes, around the 54-per-cent mark. Perhaps surprisingly, Australia, which has mandatory voting that is strictly enforced, still only manages to get 95 per cent of the eligible population to vote.
According to one study, other forms of political participation have also declined. The decline in voting couples with a general decline in civic participation. Are we too busy improving our way of life to get involved? Have we become apathetic because we feel our votes won’t make a difference? These questions have been asked by many, including our government, who are concerned about some 10 million people who did not vote in the last election and the overall turnout of 59 per cent. They have now opened up additional dates for advanced voting in the hope that busy people will become engaged.
I asked Judge Tanh Hai Ngo what his impressions were when he arrived in Canada 40 years ago. “We saw a lot of ice, snow, it was cold, compared to Asia where we came from. But there is an opportunity for everyone here, first and foremost, I tell people, get an education.”
Looking at him, everyone present could plainly see he embodies that opportunity, an immigrant himself, but every bit Canadian and proud. Originally a diplomat, he became a school teacher, and taught for many years with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, so one can understand him pushing education as an opportunity above all else.
“I always feel privileged to be a part of people’s citizenship ceremonies. I always find it fascinating to see the many different kinds of people who choose Canada as their home. I am always left feeling that they made the right choice.”
His words resonate with us. We have chosen Canada as our home, and it is a choice we will undoubtedly cherish.
Aisha Sherazi is an Ottawa writer and educator. She blogs at ottawacitizen.com/outsidethebox.
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