Comment: ‘Passing’ as Canadian thanks to skin colour

A commentary by a wildlife biologist, a former farmer, and a writer interested in justice, democracy and civilization.

We thought they were municipal employees, the three men wearing reflective-yellow work vests. We thought they were directing traffic, or giving directions. We asked them what was going on, why were people gathered across the lawn in front of the legislature building?

One man explained they were protesting immigration. Really? We were friendly enough, willing to hear more. He went on, earnestly explaining their ideas to my husband. The craziness of it exploded out of me. Slapping my husband’s arm, I pointed out: “You’re an immigrant!”

“Yeah! I am!” My husband is a white American who “passes” every day for Canadian. The yellow-vesters made those embarrassed coughing, throat-clearing noises that meant “we didn’t mean you.” There wasn’t much more to talk about, so we went on our way, highly amused.

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I left Canada as a young adult, during the horrible recession of the early 1980s. Remember the double-whammy of collapsing oil prices and sky-high interest rates?

The collapsed oil market meant that the promised funding for the graduate research I hoped to do in Alberta had vaporized. And the U.S. Federal Reserve, tasked with bringing the then-high inflation under control did just that by raising interest rates so high they threw the American economy, and naturally the Canadian economy as well, into terrible recessions.

My father kept his job, but many of our family friends did not. It was shocking, and scary, to see middle-aged people with solid, long-term careers suddenly unemployed. And there I was, in the midst of this economic cataclysm, trying to launch the next stage of my life in graduate school. There was nothing doing in Canada. But there were opportunities to be found in the U.S.

I was an economic migrant, like so many, blown across borders by the winds of global events. I hadn’t planned to leave Canada, and for many years I intended to return. But then I didn’t. I married, I finished my education, I worked, I had children. Life happened. I had immigrated to the U.S.

Then life happened again. After thirty-two years, almost all of my adult life, I returned to Canada. My family came, too. I brought Canada the gift of my husband and our children.

What would the yellow-vesters think of my boys? Would they reject these well-educated, kind, young white men because they are immigrants?

My life is full of immigrants. My father was an immigrant. My brother’s wife immigrated to Canada as a child, brought here by her immigrant parents. My husband’s sister married a Canadian and immigrated here. All these people bring tremendous benefits to Canada.

Would the yellow-vesters object to them? Would it make a difference that all these people are white? Not long after, I was gardening near our back fence, beyond which is a park where people often walk dogs.

A gentleman came along the fence with a large, brown, woolly dog. May I pet the dog? The fence is low enough that conversations happen over it. Yes, of course.

The gentleman was older and wore a turban. To my ears his accent was very strong, but even so we managed a very pleasant conversation, the kind that gives you a lift for the rest of the day, just because you’ve met a really nice person.

We talked about the places we had lived, me in Canada, the U.S., and now Canada again. He had lived in several places after India, I think Texas, maybe Montreal, and now Victoria. He has lived in Victoria for forty-three years. Forty-three years! Me? I didn’t grow up here. I’ve lived here less than four.

The yellow-vesters might not like this gentleman. Like my husband, he came from somewhere else, but unlike my husband, he has brown skin and speaks with an obvious accent. He wouldn’t “pass.”

But which of us really is the immigrant? Normally we would say he is. But you know, next to this man, I think I’m the immigrant.

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