Canadians celebrate compassion and strength
By: Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan
In Ottawa on Canada Day, tens of thousands of Canadians and foreign tourists jammed Parliament Hill to sing, laugh, hear speeches, wave the flag and holler in delight as artists performed, planes flew overhead, the RCMP changed guards, music blared and entire families frolicked in the festivities.
They heard Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper laud the country’s achievements and values. But their biggest applause went to a citizen whose achievements are phenomenal and whose passion is helping fellow Canadians.
Clara Hughes entered the stage on Parliament Hill, where Governor General Johnston was waiting, on a bicycle. The crowd erupted with thunderous applause. She is a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed staking and the only athlete ever to have won medals in both summer and winter Olympics.
What makes her a Canadian icon is also that she cares for people. In 2006 after she won a gold medal, she donated $10,000 to the Right to Play programs. This led to Canadians raising half a million dollars for an international organization that uses sports to promote development. Four years later, she gave her $10,000 winning money to the Vancouver City school program to help youth.
Helping the mentally ill remains Hughes’ foremost concern. She speaks out and works relentlessly for the cause. She has received the Order of Canada, the country’s highest award, and the Order of Manitoba, the top award of that province. She has also won honorary degrees from several universities, has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame and was the Canadian flag bearer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
She plods on relentlessly. She undertook a 12,000-kilometer, 110-day bicycle trip to draw attention to the one in every five Canadians who suffers from mental illness.
As the Governor General welcomed her, and tens of thousands clapped, she told Canadians on Canada Day that they must work together to help the mentally ill and to remove the stigma that haunts mentally ill Canadians. Her ride had begun in Toronto in March and it ended at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1. She rode through every province and territory through snow, ice, rain and sun. Throughout her trip she met people and spoke at 235 community events encouraging people to reject the darkness of depression and embrace hope.
Still, she was not the only center of attraction. The celebrations took place throughout Canada and culminated in fireworks that lit up the night sky. Forty-five special Canada Day citizenship ceremonies were held across Canada. In Ottawa, 50 new Canadians took their oath of citizenship on July 1. They had migrated from 22 countries. Usually it requires two to three years to be granted citizenship after the application. Applicants have to reside in Canada for 1,095 days in the four years leading up to citizenship application. In 2013, 128,936 immigrants received Canadian citizenship.
It is pretty routine for immigrants to get their citizenship after they have applied, provided they have broken no laws. Citizenship judge Michel Drapeau told the new Canadians: “People come here from all corners of the world. They rise to occupy the highest positions in Canada. They bring their customs, their language, their dress, their food, their traditions.” But he advised them “to be as accepting of others as you want them to be accepting of you.”
Anita Biguzs, the deputy minister of citizenship and immigration, told them that her parents were immigrants too who worked very hard, starting off with very little, to establish roots in the country.
Canada’s Parliament includes 40 people who came to Canada as immigrants. Emmanuel Dubourg, 55, who came in 1974 from Haiti, carries his late mother’s ring all the time to remind him of her sacrifices for her children. He told the Ottawa Citizen: “When my father died, I was three months old, and my mother with seven kids never remarried. At the time none of the kids worked. She, with her sewing machine, allowed all the kids to go to school. She had to leave school to allow us to go to school.”
On Canada Day most roads downtown were closed to cars. Buses offered free rides to enable families to participate. All the museums admitted people free of charge. The Governor General’s House opened its door for Canadians and foreigners alike. The Governor General’s House’s grounds also have a cricket field where cricket lovers play matches free of cost.
This is a part of an ever-changing Canada. Early in this century most of the population was of British, French, Irish and Aboriginal descent.
In 2011, visible minorities constituted 19.1 percent of the population. By 2031, that number is expected to rise to 30.6 percent, with Asian immigrants fueling that growth. Canada’s low birth rate makes immigration a necessity and many qualified people come from developing countries. Canada also accepts asylum seekers fleeing the fear of persecution.
Many of them find Canada to be harsh and cold. But they live on hope and most eventually thrive. Canada is not perfect but Canadians see it as the best country in the world.
Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.