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When Do You Stop Being An Immigrant?

Cana­dian Beaver, Ottawa, Octo­ber 2011

For the first two years I was in Canada, it was fairly obvi­ous I was new to the coun­try. Not only I didn’t speak Eng­lish very well but the North Amer­i­can way of life was a nov­elty to me. I didn’t know the local cus­toms, prod­ucts and cul­ture. I never really researched Canada the way a lot of prospec­tive immi­grants do because I just hap­pened to land in the Great North Strong and Free by chance.

At first, I con­sid­ered myself a trav­eler. I explored the area, the city and the cul­ture like back­pack­ers do. I drew com­par­isons with France and chat­ted a lot with my friends back home. I lived like a French, tak­ing advan­tage of Ottawa’s sta­tus as a some­what fran­coph­one city: I only read French books, spent a for­tune in Euro­pean shops and looked for famil­iar brands, famil­iar TV shows, famil­iar faces and accents. Canada’s lit­tle quirks amused me and I saw them through the eyes of an outsider.

But being a per­ma­nent tourist gets tir­ing. At one point, you either have to inte­grate or be a life­long expatriate—and the lat­ter wasn’t an option for me.

I got my first job in Canada after obtain­ing a Work­ing Hol­i­day Visa. I worked in an inbound call cen­tre as a bilin­gual agent and my Eng­lish quickly improved. Being on the phone all day with cus­tomers and sur­rounded by English-speakers, I didn’t have the choice. Besides, I was more com­fort­able tak­ing Eng­lish calls then deal­ing with French calls from New-Brunswick and North­ern Que­bec because I couldn’t under­stand local accents.

By the time I decided to apply for per­ma­nent res­i­dence, I moved from being a trav­eler to being a prospec­tive immi­grant. Sud­denly, I cared about all kinds of prac­ti­cal mat­ters. I started won­der­ing whether I had a future here and how I could make the coun­try work for me. I wor­ried about a lot of things. What if I wasn’t able to adapt to life in Canada? Would France take me back? I was 22, I had just grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity but I only had a Bac­calau­re­ate and vir­tu­ally no work expe­ri­ence back home. Most of my friends in France were mov­ing on to grad­u­ate stud­ies. Mean­while, I was fill­ing in immi­gra­tion papers and work­ing odd jobs. I had reached the point of not turn­ing back. I had to start my adult life some­where and hope­fully not regret it later. Worse, no one could really advise me. I was caught between two cul­tures, two ways of life. I cried a lot that year, and even­tu­ally hoped for the best.

When I was granted the per­ma­nent res­i­dence, I decided to embrace my new sta­tus. After the ordeal of deal­ing with CIC, I knew my rights and my duties and I was well-versed into immi­gra­tion mat­ters. Once in a while, my immi­grant sta­tus back­fired at me. Some places refused to hire me because: sup­pos­edly they couldn’t do a back­ground check because I hadn’t lived in Canada long enough. When­ever I was inter­viewed, I always made a point of men­tion­ing I did have a legal sta­tus and a valid SIN num­ber. Peo­ple always asked me how long I had been in Canada for, gaug­ing the chances of me bail­ing out and going home or try­ing to fig­ure out whether I could say “eh” properly.

The per­ma­nent res­i­dence was a short-lived vic­tory. At first, I was over­joyed by the thought of being a full-time immi­grant with the right to live, work and study in Canada indef­i­nitely. But I still had to explain my sta­tus. To a lot of peo­ple, I was still a French in Canada, merely a Cana­dian in train­ing. Some jobs were off-limit, includ­ing gov­ern­ment posi­tions, which rep­re­sent a large chunk of the job mar­ket in Ottawa.

I couldn’t wait to apply for cit­i­zen­ship. By the time I was eli­gi­ble, I had out­grown my per­ma­nent res­i­dent sta­tus and I wanted to belong fully, if only on paper. After tak­ing the oath, I wanted to hug Canada, kiss the ground and shout “it’s mine too!” I’ve never been the patri­otic kind to boot.

And now I real­ize I haven’t been asked where I’m from in a long time now. I prob­a­bly still have an accent in both Eng­lish and French but again, so do a lot of Cana­di­ans. Peo­ple aren’t that curi­ous about my back­ground or maybe I just don’t look so exotic any­more. I also feel Cana­dian. I don’t receive notices from Cit­i­zen­ship & Immi­gra­tion but vot­ing cards from Elec­tions Canada. I travel with my Cana­dian pass­port, I under­stand cul­tural jokes and have friends from all walks of life.

I adopted Canada and it adopted me. Most of the time, we get on well.

Look­ing back, it hap­pened just like that. I had become Canadian.

23 comments

  1. I thought you could never stop being an immi­grant. That you aren’t exactly french any­more but you aren’t exactly cana­dian nei­ther. Right in the mid­dle!
    I guess I was wrong. ;) Any­way, I truly admire the path you have taken, I think I could never fit in Québec as well as you do in Ontario!

  2. I will always remain an immi­grant, most immi­grants in France never become truly French.

    Per­son­ally, when I’m trav­el­ling when peo­ple ask where I’m from I will say I live in Paris but will fol­low with “I am Canadian”.

    • When peo­ple ask me, I some­time say “I’m French AND Cana­dian” but half of the time, peo­ple under­stand “French Cana­dian” and make some joke about Que­bec accent or some­thing. :lol:

  3. Yes, you are Cana­dian! And we’re lucky to have you.
    It’s a lovely thing to be, eh? ;)

  4. Ah, I so can relate to this post. I’ve been liv­ing here in the United States for 6 years now, as a stu­dent. My cul­tural back­ground, given my his­tory as being part of the diplo­matic corps, is quite var­ied, that I do not fully iden­tify as a Fil­ipino. So yeah, given how I act, I’m not a for­eigner, but I am not an Amer­i­can either. Quite bizarre, this limbo-like exis­tence, but some­how, I think I’m fine with that. It’s a unique sit­u­a­tion, but it def­i­nitely gives me a lot to talk about over coffee!

    • I never really see you as a Fil­ipino, and I actu­ally have to remind myself that’s where you are from! I don’t see you as an Amer­i­can either, mostly because you occa­sion­ally men­tion your visa issues and all. So I guess I see you… as a linguist!

      • That’s exactly what I mean! I see stereo­typ­i­cal Fil­ipinos and it makes me think: hmm, these are what Fil­ipinos do? Inter­est­ing… There’s just a lot of cul­tural norms and stereo­types that typ­i­cal Fil­ipinos do but I don’t, and that is enough to sort of draw the line. It brings rather inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences when­ever I find myself in Manila every now and then…

  5. Con­grat­u­la­tions on your suc­cess! All the effort was worth it, right? :)

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