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To be a Citizen is to Belong

By Haiyan Zhang, CMC
At the National Student Commonwealth Forum
Crown Plaza Hotel, Ottawa
May 08, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, fellow Canadians!

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this Forum. It is an honour and a privilege to share this time and space with each and every one of you as leaders who will shape the future of Canada. And I am delighted to share my perspective on your theme of Migration and Citizenship.

What is citizenship? Statistics Canada defines it as “the legal citizenship status of a person.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada refers to it in terms of rights and responsibilities. For me, citizenship is a journey, a journey of coming home.

To be a citizen is to belong.

It was a beautiful day. Blues skies. Sunny. Warm. It was the day that would change my life. It was the day I fell in love. Irreparably and passionately in love!

The day was July 1, 1995. Like thousands of Canadians, I attended the Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill. For most Canadians, this would have been a special day but certainly not unique. For me, it was a definite first and absolutely unique experience. Back in China, official National Day celebrations were reserved for and awarded to people of privilege, prestige or connections, none of which was enjoyed by my family or by me.

As I waited, on that beautiful July 1, I could not believe that I, an ordinary brand new immigrant could simply walk up the hill, nudge my way right next to the red carpet prepared for the dignitaries. Nobody tried to stop me from getting there. Nobody questioned my right to be there.

I was bewildered by the countless Canadian flags on top of buildings, in people’s hands, on people’s clothes, and most amazingly on the faces of children and adults alike.

The band started playing as dignitaries slowly stepped onto the red carpet, guarded by a mere 4 RCMP officers. As I watched, a little boy of 4-5 years of age standing next to me suddenly dashed on to the red carpet. My heart went to my throat! I was worried that the officer would give the poor boy a hard time, take him away and his parents would be punished. To my utter astonishment, the officer simply walked up to the boy, took his own hat off and traded it with the boy’s cowboy hat before walking him back to his parents.

“Cute!” Almost every Canadian who was born and grew up here has responded to this story. Most immigrants, particularly those from countries without a democratic system, however, relate to this story as representing many things that separate Canada from the repressions, inequality and sufferings they have experienced in other parts of the world. For me, this story came in sharp contrast to what I had witnessed in China almost 20 years ago during the Tiananmen Massacre when army tanks and police forces crushed student-led demonstrations, a massacre that claimed the lives of thousands, including relatives and friends, a massacre that killed the dream for democracy for thousands, perhaps millions of people in the world’s most populous nation.

As the boy’s face beamed with the brilliant flags on his face, tears rolled on my cheeks and I said to myself “I am in love with this country. I belong to this country.”

Until that moment, Canada was the country of my husband whom I had met while covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as a correspondent of China’s Xinhua News Agency and married in Beijing earlier in 1995. At that moment, Canada became my country too.

Later that day, Prime Minister Jean Chretien would tell Canadians to “for one day, wear our patriotism on our sleeves.” I responded by wearing two Canadian flags on my baseball cap and taking countless pictures of the revelers at the birthday party of my new country.

To be a citizen is to belong. We still have a long way to go.

For the next few years I would refer to Canada as a society “compassionate, tolerant and democratic to a fault.”

Such is the romantic view many newcomers hold of Canada, a sense of belonging in a society that is open and welcoming. As we encounter new faces, new foods, new vistas, new words in languages other than those of our childhood, new references to histories that were not ours, we experience a certain level of wonderment. As hockey replaces other sports we were familiar with and Tim Horton’s coffee takes the place of our preferred beverage, we learn to befriend the ice and snow and appreciate the generosity warmly extended to us by the people of this country.

Yet as it is with any relationships, the honeymoon does not last forever. For many, particularly those from “untraditional”, i.e., non-European countries, i.e., visible minorities, harsh realities soon hit home when we find that our educational backgrounds are discounted, our professional experience ignored and our loyalties questioned. Doubts start to rise when we realize that we live in a country with most highly educated taxi drivers and pizza delivery men on the planet!

Canada is a country of immigrants. Today, immigration is the most prominent factor in our population growth. A variety of studies have indicated that by 2011, the net growth of Canada’s labour force will come exclusively from immigration, more than 75% of whom are visible minorities. Here are some basic facts:

• The 2006 national census shows that there are nearly 5.1 million Visible Minorities in Canada, which represents 16% of our population.

• In 8 years, it is projected that Visible Minorities will account for close to 21% of Canada's population with over 7.1 million people, in fact in some communities, such as Ottawa, this is already true. In Ottawa, immigrants represent about 22% of the city’s population and accounted for 80% of population growth between 2001 and 2006, three quarters of whom visible minorities.

• One in two of visible minorities aged between 25-34 have university degrees compared to one in four other Canadians of the same age. One in 3 visible minorities aged between 35-64 have university degrees, compared to one in five among other Canadians. However, in most cases, their international educational background or professional designations are not recognized.

• As a result, immigrants are getting poorer. While the overall poverty level for other Canadians decreased in the last two decades, poverty among immigrants, particularly visible minorities, went up. Today, they are two to three times more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and four times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians.

When the economy was booming in 2006 and the national unemployment rate was between 4-5%, the unemployment rate among visible minority immigrants was over 15%.

With the economic crisis and the national unemployment rate at 8% as announced by Statistics Canada this morning, this situation is expected to get worse.

In Ottawa, recent findings indicate that the median individual income for recent immigrants was under $15,000 compared to over $26,000 for Aboriginals and those with disability. The median income overall is nearly $33,000 overall, that’s more than double the income of recent immigrants!

How does Canada live up to its reputation as a vibrant multicultural society if up to 20% of our population lives, on long term basis, smaller than their potentials? Many immigrants intentionally delete their more professional backgrounds for fear that they would lose their current positions in fields that require much lower skills and pay barely enough to cover daily necessities. Can you imagine a PHD or experienced physician having to pretend that they have always only worked as house cleaners? What does the society gain? Do they really belong?

To be a citizen is to belong. Ignorance and indifference keep us from belonging.

Perhaps like some of you today, there was a time when I found these facts and figures almost incredible. In fact, there was a time when I thought if an immigrant did not do well in this wonderful country it was only because they were either not smart enough or they didn’t try hard enough.

You see I was doing fine. After that fateful July 1, I started my own business and assisted Canadian organizations do business in China. I earned a second master’s degree, an MBA. I found a job as a manager at the Business Development Bank of Canada. I was recruited to the Privy Council Office to advise the Prime Minister’s office on communications. I was serving on the Board of Directors at the United Way. All it took; it seemed to me, was for me to work hard and be grateful. I was ignorant and in fact indifferent to the struggle of other immigrants, particularly visible minorities. I was climbing the ladder. I was going places. I saw no systematic barriers, I saw no discrimination. I did not reflect much on what it meant to be an immigrant.

Until I was pushed off the cliff! A clerical error led to an unnecessary application for top secret security clearance. The application was denied and PCO terminated my employment. I was fired, because I had worked as a reporter for China’s official News Agency and because I attended receptions, often co-hosted by the Chinese Embassy and DFAIT [(Canadian) Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade].

I was devastated. I felt betrayed. I was outraged. I was in despair. How could the country I loved so much treat me with such injustice? Did I really belong?

The true Canada answered my questions. Friends and strangers rallied behind me. My union supported me. Many people expressed shame and anger. Others apologized for Canada. More believed that what I experienced was part of systemic discrimination because I came from the wrong country. However, there were some who advised me that my plight was a call to action for me to take a greater interest in the challenges facing immigrants.

To be a citizen is to belong. We belong when we understand what it means to not belong.

This latter group ultimately inspired me most and soon I started to look closely at what it means to be a Canadian citizen as an immigrant, through research and by volunteering in community organizations as well as reflecting on my own experience. The following are some honest observations:

1. As immigrants, being Canadian means that we have to create new identities. We bring with us the values of the countries we left behind, very often very old countries with very old traditions and rituals which may appear quite different from those of Canada as a young nation. We may relate to power differently, we may look at time and space differently, we may have different communication styles, and we may take different approaches toward solving problems or making decisions. Our new identify inevitably embodies elements of our old identity, making us feeling guilty for not being unequivocally Canadian.

However the fundamentals do not change. As human beings, we all aspire for respect, recognition, equal access to employment opportunities and human dignity. As human beings we are all eager to make a difference and leave this world a better place.

2. As immigrants, being Canadian means that we are allowed to celebrate the cultures of countries we left behind. Canada’s multicultural policy seems to have truly excelled in this regard when millions of dollars are spent annually hosting cultural events and festivals. In fact, as we speak, this year’s Asian Heritage Month kicked off showcasing the beauty and richness of many countries in Asia.

We are extremely grateful for such generosity and tolerance. However, until we can live to our full capacity as Canadians, such generosities only help to strengthen the nostalgia we feel toward the old countries which often beckon and claim a piece of our hearts. An unintended effect of this form of multiculturalism has, in fact, in the eyes of many immigrants, helped to create ethnic enclaves which hinder their full integration as Canadian citizens, leaving them stranded in a state of limbo, of landing but not truly arriving home. In other words, in the ethnic ghettoes, people do not feel that they belong.

3. As immigrants, being Canadian means that we have the rights to vote and even run for political office. This is a privilege millions in the world risk their lives to fight for. We feel honoured that political parties actively seek our votes during election campaigns.

Some would even provide transportation to get us to polling stations so that we can vote for their party. However, we are disappointed that many promises are made but few are kept on issues concerning our wellbeing. Studies have shown that recent immigrants are among population groups with the lowest voting records. Some among your generation have chosen to “tune out” of the political process, many immigrants are not even “tuned in!”

To be a citizen is to belong. We belong when we are united.

10 year after I received my citizenship certificate and several rounds of battles later, my fight with the bureaucracy continues. However I count myself fortunate. Fortunately I do not live in a ghetto. Being married to an Anglophone Canadian, I have choices beyond my own ethnic community for social network. Being able to speak English fluently means that people pay more attention to my skills, assuming that I was Canadian born and bred. Having Canadian degrees has made it easier for me to find work to replace some of my lost income. Being outspoken, a very un-Chinese quality, has allowed me to speak up on these and other issues. These advantages have enabled me to exercise my rights and take up my responsibilities as a citizen. I serve in many community organizations and make a difference in the lives of many fellow citizens, immigrants and otherwise, who come my way. So yes, I do belong.

However, I will not be a full citizen until my fellow citizens can also enjoy the sense of belonging I do. In my opinion citizenship also means unity with other members of society.

Canada has chosen immigration as one of its pillars of nation building, both as an aspiration and out of necessity. As the baby boomers age, yes they do age, and exit the work force, there is increasingly a shortage of skilled labour. The shortage is experienced by Italy, Germany, France, and other European countries which are competing with Canada to attract and retain the best talent. As economic conditions improve in some developing countries such as India and China, disenchanted and disfranchised immigrants will turn their backs on Canada and leave.

If Canada does not find ways to employ effectively the skills of immigrants, others will. If we don’t act now and act decisively, we risk losing these valuable resources. Immigration can no longer be regarded as an issue to be dealt with, or a problem to be solved. Rather, it is an opportunity. If we miss it, we will all pay a price. Consider the following:

• A 2001 study by Conference Board of Canada concluded that between $4.1 and $5.9 billion is lost to the Canadian economy each year because of unrecognized qualifications of immigrants. Jeffrey Reitz, Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto put such costs at $15 billion per year.

We have a national shortage of 3000 doctors while an estimated 5000 foreign trained doctors who can’t practice. Ontario alone has 2,000 and 4,000 of immigrant doctors and each represents over $100,000 in savings to Canadian taxpayers in education cost! When you consider such examples, $15 billion may in fact be an underestimation.

• Fully 1 in four or 25% of highly-skilled immigrants permanently leave Canada within 10 years of landing, disenchanted and disheartened. Many had arrived in Canada on the point-system based on their educational and professional background. They were given the welcome mat but the door to success was shut on them.

Employment is central to full membership in any society and in a capitalist liberal democratic society like Canada, it is the foundation of full Citizenship. Meaningful employment does not only represent a source of livelihood, it is also a means of forming an identity and provides a sense of belonging. We do not seek special treatment, we only seek equal treatment! We do not want charity, we want unity!

To be a citizen is to belong. We belong when we act with courage.

In March 1990, I interviewed Nelson Mandela and asked him what had kept him going in 27 years of imprisonment. His answer, “it was the courage to believe and passion to persevere.”

I am deeply inspired by Mandela as I am inspired by your forum. You have chosen a topic that is intricate, complex and one which is studied often but acted on sparingly. You may not realize that your choice was also one of courage, and with courage, I hope and trust you will follow your deliberations of this week with action. I encourage you to become aware of immigrants’ situations, reach out and hear stories of immigrants’ journey, get involved in helping immigrants and demand action from those in positions of power to make systemic change.

Every year, over 200,000 immigrants journey to this country, leaving jobs, loved ones and entire cultural frameworks. In Canada, our languages, traditions, and values inevitably mix with those of others. The only common thread binding our disparate cultural and personal stories will be the experience of being immigrants and our shared journey toward citizenship. While immigrants help to keep our country viable and shape our future, as future leaders, future MPs, Ministers and Prime Ministers, you have the power to make this transformation one of true hope and real promise for us all!

Canada is a model for the world in many ways. But as his Excellency the British High Commissioner said last night: “As a young country, Canada can do better. Canada can go bolder.” Indeed we can! Yes we can!

So it is with passion for this country, one that I found on July 1, 1995, my fellow Canadians, I say to you that to be a citizen is to belong. I call on you to work with me, and all immigrants, to make this country our own. I urge you to continue to exercise your courage and accompany me and all immigrants on this journey of citizenship. Until we all truly belong!

More on Haiyan at CanWest


A Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and dedicated volunteer, Haiyan Zhang is Chair, Christopher Leadership Courses Ottawa, Vice President, Social Planning Council of Ottawa, Vice President, Cultural Interpretation Services for Our Communities, a Board member of Leadership Ottawa and Canadians for Accountability as well a former Board member of United Way/Centraide Ottawa. She is a co-author of “Women Experts Who Speak Speak Out (Vol.6)” and “101 Ways to Improve Your Life (Vol.3).” She was nominated as 2006 United Way Ottawa Community Builder of the Year and Asia Networks 2008 Asian of the Year for her volunteer work. In April 2009, Haiyan celebrated her 10th anniversary as a Canadian Citizen.

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