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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.

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