In February, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship celebrated the impact and accomplishments of Black Canadians in a series of enhanced citizenship ceremonies held virtually in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and the Atlantic Provinces. Arts leader Karen Carter joined us for our virtual ceremony on February 19.

Carter is the executive director of MacLaren Arts Centre in Barrie, Ont. She is the former executive director of Heritage Toronto, a City of Toronto agency responsible for the education and promotion of Toronto’s heritage. She is the founding executive director of Myseum of Toronto and co-founder and director of Black Artists’ Network and Dialogue (BAND), the organization dedicated to the promotion of Black arts and culture in Canada and abroad. She is also the founder and creative director of C-Art a Caribbean Art Fair launched in January 2020 in Mandeville, Jamaica.

Following the ceremony, we spoke with her about arts and culture, community, and what Black History Month means to her.

Why do you think arts and culture is so important to you, personally, and to society in general?
I firmly believe that arts and culture is one of the most effective ways to help make the world a better place through informal education. And I think from a very early age, I knew I wanted to work in some capacity in the arts. For me, it’s all about essentially the soft power impact of arts and culture in helping to create spaces for difficult conversations, helping to create moments of enlightenment and joy, and helping to create opportunities for people to gather.

I think one of the things I said that I love about this country [during the citizenship ceremony] is that it is this experiment on how to become better, and do better. I think the more diverse the moments that allow people to come to those difficult conversations in ways that are accessible, the better. And I think that our societies need that in order to be really sophisticated and whole. If you don’t have the arts, you are missing a part of the human condition. So, for me, the choice to be able to do this kind of work is a privilege because it is a way that you influence people’s lives both in the short term and long term if you do what you do well.

[icc_block_quote quote=”You gain a sense of belonging when you understand what you are belonging to.” author=”” border_colour=”#000000″]

What role do you think arts and culture can have in fostering belonging?
I think within the Canadian landscape, the belonging — and I think we have started to do this post-Canada 150 — is really making it a core part of arts and culture spaces to connect more with our Indigenous roots. I think you gain a sense of belonging when you understand what you are belonging to. I think more work has started been done, and obviously more work has to be done, to really understand who we are as a country and creating opportunities for Canadian artists to be a part of that. That understanding is partly about understanding the complex relationships we have with our Indigenous communities and then through that, we start to understand the complexities of the broader narrative around Canadian culture and identity. Even things like the land acknowledgment, you get up in the morning and this land that you stand on in this country that is still trying to find its way is stolen Indigenous land. You deal with that reality and it’s then how do we start to move forward in a way we pay homage and respect, but also pull in those communities in their authentic voices. That is almost a roadmap for how to then go further in that broader understanding of all of these people from all over the world that came here be it 400 years ago, 200 years ago, or last week and have made this country home and contributed to it in so many different ways. I think understanding the history helps us to understand the present and helps us to gain a true sense of what belonging to this country means. 

Can you talk a bit about the work that you have done with Heritage Toronto and now at MacLaren to make arts and culture more inclusive?
For me, the lessons learned and the work that I did at Heritage Toronto around heritage education and supporting advocacy in the community reinforced for me the importance of understanding history in how you then develop whatever you are doing with arts and culture. For instance, right now at the MacLaren, the first project I am working on is a public art projection project. Some of that is announcing my tenure in the institution as the new ED and also to take the preciousness out of art.

For me there is a juxtaposition between understanding the history, which gives you a sense of the community that you are in, and then starting to make choices around how you present, collaborate, and partner to do your work as an arts organization that is a balance of those communities. Not every community is going to come into their interest in culture in the same way, but your responsibility as a culture leader is to try and do as much as you can to serve all the audiences.

I am really excited at the opportunity to make it feel accessible, not precious or intimidating.

Given your focus on highlighting diverse voices throughout your career, what advice do you have for institutions who may be looking at doing this work for the first time?
I remember when we started Myseum of Toronto, the idea was that the museum belongs to you and the museum belongs to community, and if the community has a sense of ownership to it, it de facto pulls the organization back to the ground. I think what has been the Achilles heel for most institutions is this idea of ‘if you build it they will come’. So, we build this big edifice and do all this stuff in the building and we are seeing no one is coming and they weren’t coming before COVID, let’s be truthful. So, I think the core lesson for me both in things that I have done at BAND or the work at Myseum, even the playbook for how I am approaching life at the MacLaren, is to leave your institution, go out into your community, be open to what that meeting may lead you to because if you go out, they will come in.

I think we need to spend more time out in the community and it isn’t even about having a program that you have developed, it is just go meet with people and say ‘hey, here is what we are doing, I am curious about what you are doing.’ Listen more and talk less. Don’t go feeling like you have to have something to ask or some idea in mind, just be open to the initial introduction and then see where the relationship goes. It is kind of like dating, you meet people, you don’t start planning the wedding the minute you meet them.

[icc_block_quote quote=”Leave your institution, go out into your community…because if you go out, they will come in.” author=”” border_colour=”#000000″]

You created BAND (Black Artists’ Network and Dialogue) to promote Black arts and culture in Canada and overseas. Has the way the work of the organization is received changed over the years?
The goal with BAND was how do we create space for artists to be artists. It was how do you create something to support Black Canadian artists so that they can develop and then hopefully get more of a space on the international landscape. For a lot of us who live and work in the diaspora across the globe as Black folks and as people of African descent, and as even people on the continent, there is always this balancing, this pushing back against Americanness that Black identity is so inextricably linked to. Living adjacent to that machine and the way it presents culture, there is always a balance that you got to find to make space for your little voice.

I do think right now, with everything that has happened, what has occurred for BAND is it’s kind of heightened our ability to be a place to push and share information. I think after 10 years, the gallery as a space and the things that we do there and the partnerships locally and internationally are in a good rhythm and now it’s like how do we take that creative capital we’ve built and that credibility and see how we can help move the needle forward. Like how do we help others develop other spaces across Canada because we don’t want to be the only ones. It would be nice to have a bit of a circuit, so can we get a gallery space out west, can we make sure there is something in Montreal? How do we use that knowledge and that credibility that we have to help cultivate opportunities for a national Black cultural landscape to be developed?

What does Black History Month mean to you?
I am actually less interested in the month on its own and more how the month promotes a curiosity for citizens about other citizens. For me any history month is really about using that month to punctuate a particular moment and it hopefully influences a seed that might be planted. Something that you were introduced to may then lead you to say ‘what can I do as a co-conspirator or advocate to dismantle racism’. Or ‘what little thing am I going to do to make sure that my kids are not going to end up hearing about this for the first time as adults.’

For me, the month itself has become really important and powerful because it influences what someone might learn that impacts how they then walk through life throughout the whole year. The understanding around the Black cultural community issues just helps you be more empathetic around any racialized community’s issues. It helps you think “oh, this is how I am approaching Black issues, I might be more comfortable and curious about Indigenous issues or issues to do with the Jewish community’.

I also think Black History Month in Canada is important to just root it here. The good thing about what Jean Augustine did in making it a Canadian thing is it started to push the conversation around not just American references, but about Canadian references. Like who is the Canadian Rosa Parks, and then you have the conversation about Viola Desmond.

Oh Canada – Call for all Canadian artists to take part in celebrating new Canadian citizens this Canada Day with an anthem filmed from coast to coast to coast.

The Institute for Canadian Citizenship invites you to participate in singing the bilingual national anthem as part of our Celebration of Citizenship  — an interactive virtual coming together of Canadians that celebrates the Canadian values of diversity, inclusion, and active citizenship, and offers a communal moment of hopefulness and pride.

The Celebration of Citizenship event will recognize new Canadians and immigrants who are frontline workers, and show gratitude for their contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also celebrate new Canadian citizens with a virtual citizenship ceremony, held in partnership with the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, that will be broadcast live.

We invite all Canadian artists to participate in this volunteer opportunity. To receive information on submitting a video, please contact Hiba Omar at homar@inclusion.ca.

As we’ve reported before, people of Asian descent have been the targets of COVID-19-related harrassment and discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic. But COVID-19 has also highlighted existing prejudices against other groups, with Jewish and Muslim communities reporting an uptick in harassment, mistreatment, and the spread of disinformation about them in recent months. 

In Montreal, Hasidic Jewish communities have spoken out against being unfairly scrutinized after several people made false reports to the police claiming to have witnessed community members congregating in synagogues and other indoor spaces. At a recent anti-lockdown demonstration in Columbus, Ohio, a protestor held up an anti-Semitic sign with the words “The real plague” next to an image of a rat and the Star of David. In France, a candidate for the far-right National Rally party had his party support revoked after liking a video shared on the social media website VK, promoting an anti-Semitic COVID-19 conspiracy theory. 

The United Nations has reported an “alarming rise” in anti-Semitic hate speech during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is imperative for the civil society organisations and faith-based actors to signal a zero-tolerance policy towards antisemitism online and offline,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Incidences of Islamophobia have also grown, including in India, where the term “Corona Jihad” was reportedly trending on Twitter just weeks after religious riots in New Delhi killed fifty-three people. In the U.K., far-right extremists have been sharing false and misleading images of Muslims, who they claim are flouting physical distancing rules. And in Thunder Bay, Ont., the husband and son of a doctor who is treating COVID-19 patients were verbally attacked while shopping at a grocery store. 

“Even as Canadian Muslims die from COVID-19, we worry about how the entire Muslim community could face castigation in the case that even a single Muslim breaches quarantine,” writes Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, in a recent Edmonton Journal op-ed.

In the face of increasing hostility, these communities have also been forced to alter some of their religious practices as lockdown measures remain in effect. 

During recent Passover celebrations in early April, instead of gathering together around a table, many Jewish families celebrated their traditional Seder dinners digitally, using video-conferencing apps. 

Some celebrants adapted elements of the Seder to reflect the current times, like choosing to complete the ritual washing of hands — often done symbolically — to be done for real, as an acknowledgment of current public health guidelines. Other elements of the Passover experience also had a special resonance; gathering to remember the ten plagues that led to the exodus of Jewish people from Egypt while a different kind of “plague” looms made this year’s celebration stand out from those past. 

Now, in the midst of Ramadan, Muslims are trying to navigate new restrictions that are affecting their daily fasts and upcoming Eid celebrations. 

“Islam as a religion is a very communal faith, and Ramadan is kind of the zenith of that communal spirit,” says Safiah Chowdhury, a 31-one-year-old Muslim woman living in Toronto who is active in her faith community. “With the orders for physical distancing and the closure of our mosques at this time, it inhibits a lot of the community spirit that typically is replete during Ramadan. It’s changed significantly,” she says. 

These difficulties are coming at a time when celebrations like Ramadan are most needed. Studies have shown that religious practices across faiths can increase overall happiness. A 2010 Gallup poll found that, out of a sample size of over 675,000 Americans, those who identified as “very religious” (about 41 per cent of the population) had higher rates of emotional health, healthy behaviours, and overall well-being at that time. But with the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shutdowns, the ability to lean on one’s faith community for support is greatly diminished. 

“The digital way of gathering is okay, but it’s no replacement for being around hundreds of community members all in their Eid best,” says Chowdhury. She adds that there have been efforts to find digital workarounds — like celebrating iftar (the nightly breaking of the fast) over video, and offering religious programming online — with some positive effects. “None of this really replaces actual prayer, but it does provide a lot of knowledge, insight, and reflection,” she says.   

Even with physical distancing measures in place, some cities have been stepping up to accommodate religious celebrations in new ways. For the first time, the City of Toronto is allowing the Islamic call to prayer to be broadcast from local mosques. Normally, amplified sounds are prohibited by the city’s municipal code but officials have agreed to make an exception, acknowledging the difficulties the city’s Muslims are facing during the pandemic. “Spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being is important during these difficult times,” Tammy Robinson, a city spokesperson, told the CBC.

Similar to the nightly 7:30 p.m. applause in support of health-care workers, Toronto’s call to prayer exception is meant to signal a sense of community with Muslims quarantined in their homes and separated from family and friends. Chowdhury, for her part, says measures like these provide a bit of solace during an otherwise difficult time. “If you’re in the vicinity and you’re able to hear it, it’s just really calming and reaffirming,” she says. “It’s been one of the nice things about Ramadan in isolation.”

In these challenging times, we are seeing communities come together to support their most vulnerable. Unfortunately, we are also seeing certain communities become the target of hateful attacks online and off.

Mathieu Marion, a member of francophone group #JeSuisLàCanada, shared his perspectives on combating hateful, false and misleading information through counterspeak, COVID-19, and why what happens in digital spaces matters in the physical world.

Can you describe what the counterspeak movement is and why groups like #JeSuisLà are important?
I think the counterspeak movement aims to neutralize social media’s multiplier effect on all kinds of hateful information that impacts our ability to get along and harms the health of our rule of law and our democracy. These networks give higher visibility to hateful rhetoric that can influence public opinion by polarizing it into extreme political positions and even provoke attacks like the massacre at the Sainte-Foy mosque in January 2017. So, we have to react and do our part as community members.

Unfortunately, Facebook (to cite just one example) very rarely removes hateful comments or statuses after one or more complaints and when they do, it’s random. Certain media in Québec (like CBC or La Presse) have recently started to moderate their Facebook pages to remove hate speech. But the situation isn’t ideal. There’s still work to do.

However, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms, responding to a hateful comment isn’t effective: the discussion that follows never convinces the original poster to change their opinion and it draws attention to the hateful comment, rather than minimizing its reach.

And people often get worked up and might end up replying with insults, risking getting their own account blocked if Facebook says what they wrote violates its community standards. So, it’s not worth the time and it actually does the opposite of what’s intended. Plus, extended discussions with extremists on social media has an impact on our mental well-being.

That’s why the #JeSuisLà tactic seems more promising. When you ignore other hateful comments on a thread and leave a positive comment using facts and reasoning, plus hashtags like #JeSuisLàCanada and #JeSuisLàQuébec, your comment will get likes that will push the thread higher in the FB algorithm, making most of the hateful comments invisible and drawing the attention of new people who view the thread away from those comments.

We’ve noticed that comments with these tags rarely prompt hateful responses. The tags seem to dissuade people.

Why did you decide to get involved with the #JeSuisLà movement? Were you inspired by a particular experience, comment, or article?
I learned about #IAmHere in this Guardian article. After that, I was able to find and join the Canadian group #IAmHereCanada. I then got permission to use #JeSuisLàQuébec for a francophone team.

Given the political context in Québec, using just #JeSuisLàCanada would have had a negative effect because it would have been easy for nationalist critics to dismiss a comment with that hashtag as “federalist.” Unfortunately, it seems difficult to attract members for this francophone group at the moment.

From what you’ve observed, what topics are most likely to attract problematic comments?
In Québec, it’s topics around secularism and the Muslim headscarf that attract the most hateful comments because of the vigorous public debate on questions such as reasonable accommodations that led to the Bouchard-Taylor report in 2008, the Parti Québécois “charter” in 2013-2014 and more recently, the Québec ban on religious symbols. Another topic to add is immigrants entering Canada unauthorized at Roxham Road on the border with the United States. Most of the immigrants are of Haitian or African descent and they’re targeted in racist reactions.

Immigration in general is a hot topic because Quebecers in some age groups and regions are afraid that their people and culture will disappear and see immigrants as a risk to their survival. Reducing the number of immigrants is a recurring topic currently. Multiculturalism is also often criticized because it’s seen as a policy aimed at destroying Québec, rather than respecting the rights of minorities and helping them integrate.

Other topics like climate change lead to outbursts that target Greta Thunberg, young people ecologists, etc., rather than minorities.

In the context of COVID-19, what has changed in terms of the involvement of participants and/or the content that you see online in the news and comment sections?
At first, COVID-19 had a calming effect: the main columnists that feed xenophobia in the province turned their attention elsewhere. But for some time now, fear is pushing people to look for scapegoats for the crisis and media content that mentions Jewish, Indigenous, or Muslim people often receives many racist comments.

In terms of dangerous, hateful, misleading or poorly informed remarks, what action would you like to see from government? Civil society? Ordinary community members?
I don’t really think the government can do much without running the risk of getting accused of censorship. However, certain politicians — like Maxime Bernier — should stop adding fuel to the fire in order to gain sympathy and votes. Others need to become more aware of the reality on social media and the abuse that happens there. I would say that the first issue is having independent media, an essential condition for the health of our democracy. They have financial difficulties and the government should find a way to finance them better.

In Québec, there are a number of organizations doing effective work, like the Commission des Droits de la Personne et des Droits de la Jeunesse and the Ligue des Droits et Libertés. Here again, the financial means to do good work should be provided. Unfortunately, the Quebec Press Council is not a very effective tool for countering fake news and hate-filled columns.

As for regular community members? I’d love to see more of them join #JeSuisLàCanada!

In these challenging times, we are seeing communities come together to support their most vulnerable. Unfortunately, we are also seeing certain communities become the target of hateful attacks online and off.

We spoke with Alena Helgeson, founder of #iamhereCanada, on her efforts to combat hateful, false and misleading information through “counterspeak”, COVID-19, and why what happens in digital spaces matters in the physical world.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you describe what the counterspeak movement is, and why online groups like #iamhere are important?
Counterspeaking is basically going into platforms or social media comment sections, and creating an alternative message. We’re seeing a vocal minority that is trying to perpetuate a particular message that isn’t true — disinformation, or lots of subtle (or not so subtle) racism — so to be able to provide a message of facts really helps. The silent majority can see [that message] and can start to balance what might be true and what might not be. Plus, counterspeaking helps carve out space so that people who might feel silenced or marginalized have that space to share their thoughts and their viewpoints.

I’ve talked about the Dangerous Speech Project out of Harvard — they really focus on what dangerous speech is. Hate speech is very subjective. What might be considered hate speech to one person might not be to another person.

Dangerous speech is any type of expression — whether it’s written or pictures — that will increase the risk of one group violently attacking another, or even being tolerant of violence. When President Trump talks about the “Chinese Virus”, that’s not really hate speech, but it is dangerous. What it’s doing is inspiring or activating groups of people to start doing a lot of anti-Asian attacks. We’ve seen that with Muslim people or Indigenous people — we see things that aren’t hateful, but certainly stirs the pot so people will be more tolerant of acts against those groups.

That’s really why it’s important that there are counterspeaking measures, so that that tolerance level doesn’t change, or so that it doesn’t swing so that society accepts attacks and hate.

How do you know what platforms, news articles, and comments to engage in?
In our group, we’ll invite people to look for articles and things through social media. Every day one of our moderators will go through and scan news articles, and we look for anything that can be thought of as dangerous speech, or hate speech, and then we post that in our group and invite members to go and make comments on it. They link their comments to the thread in the group, so that we can go support them.

Why did you choose to get involved with #iamhere? Was there a particular moment, comment, or article that inspired you?
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend and he started talking about all these anti-Muslim things, and how he was afraid because he knew that as soon as [Muslims] got that call from their religious leaders, they would kill all the white people, including him and his neighbours. And I was really surprised that anybody [I knew] would think that. And then I started thinking that if he thinks that, and was so able to shift into that mindset, there must be other Canadians that feel that same way, too.

I started doing some digging and ran into the the #iamhere movement, and I joined the U.K. group to see how they worked and what they did. There are a lot of issues that are very universal, so I was able to interact with them.

And then [the shooting of] Colten Boushie happened. And that tragedy sparked so much hate in the media, and on social media, that we just thought it was time to start something in Canada.

What are the most common topics you see problematic comments on?
Racism is huge; Islamophobia, LGBTQ2S+ issues all across the world, gender, anything that has to do with women. Climate change — Greta Thunberg is a huge, huge target. There are so many people that attack her everywhere. And in Canada and Australia, anything related to First Nations communities is also always very inflammatory.

And then recently, with COVID, very anti-Asian stuff.

In the context of COVID-19, what has changed in terms of participant involvement or the content you see online in news stories and comment sections?
We’ve noticed that anything to do with COVID  — and maybe it’s because people are feeling oversaturated — participation levels have really dropped. A lot of conspiracy theories in the comments, lots of disinformation, lots of people suddenly thinking that they [are experts on] viruses and healthcare. And, again, many comments against Asians.

When you say participation has dropped, do you mean participation from #iamhere members? Yeah. Within the group there are fewer people wanting to interact with those posts as they go by. Right at the beginning there were lots of people jumping in with proper facts, and now it’s sort of dwindling a little bit.

People, I think, are just tired. So, we’ve tried to counter that by sharing really positive stories: volunteer work, or business owners giving away food to homeless people, or landlords going out and buying groceries for their senior residents.

What do you say to those who criticize that engaging in counterspeak is just “feeding the trolls”?
We’ve heard that argument before. When we interact online, we try really hard not to engage the trolls. You don’t see a lot of us countering them directly. What we’ll do is post a standalone, objective, fact-filled comment that people can boost or reply to. When we ask members to do a standalone, that helps, so that you don’t accidentally boost the comment of a known troll or someone sharing disinformation, because commenting on it amplifies it.

Also, you don’t always have to make a comment. You can go in and support the ones that we suggest supporting, or find other ones worth boosting.

What would you say to people who withdraw from online spaces because they feel that they are targeted due to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality?
That’s really hard. The common reaction is to just not want to engage. Lots of people withdraw, and don’t read comments — it’s a coping mechanism — but their voices are necessary. We’ve talked about how diverse Canada is, and we need those diverse voices. We need those voices to help set the tone and shift the conversation. And they can tell us when they’re feeling attacked or targeted. We’re 150,000 strong worldwide, so when they need help we can call in those groups. They just need to know they’re not alone.

Can you share an example of a time you were able to effectively support someone online or address an incorrect or problematic narrative?
Don Cherry’s comments before Christmas was a big one. There were lots of articles — some of them supporting what Don Cherry said, and some of them just reporting. We would see a lot of people saying “well that’s just the way he is”, “ he’s always been like that”, “‘you people’ could be anybody”. So we were able to go in and break down what it meant, and why it was problematic.

We try to show people that they’re not the only ones speaking out against something hateful. It’s one of the ways we carve out space for people to share their opinions, and it helps when we comment as well, because it encourages others to speak up.

What role can we play as advocates for one another without speaking on behalf of someone else?
The last thing we need are saviours. I was talking to my partner, who is never sure how to help in these situations. He doesn’t want to go in as a white guy acting like a superhero. I think it helps to be able to redirect to the voices of the people who are marginalized. If I’m commenting on something that’s anti-Asian, then he can come in and support or amplify my comment. That’s one way that it’s great to be an ally — letting marginalized voices be heard, and supporting them, without speaking for them.

Many people right now are finding that they have more time on their hands. Do you see this as an opportunity to get involved in more of this work?
I think we’re in a time of a great reboot. It’s a time to be able to reflect on what you want to do, and how you see yourself. I think it’s making people slow down and giving them a chance to listen to their heart.

With regards to time, we know that people are scrolling through right now more than they’re speaking up. They can find the time to be more of an activist, if they choose to be. I like to think that we’ll be a more compassionate world when we get out of this thing.

How would you help someone see work with #iamhere as volunteer work, or activism – just like getting involved in your community?
We have to stress that online work is activism. You’re creating a narrative. We see the influence of what’s being said online when it carries into real life. Online you create narratives, you create perspectives on different topics, whether it’s Indigenous people, or refugees, and we hear those things being echoed in grocery stores. It’s so important to engage online.

On August 14, 2019, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, and the community of East Gwillimbury celebrated 37 new Canadian citizens from 16 countries at a special enhanced citizenship ceremony. The ceremony was held at the historic Sharon Temple National Historic Site and Museum. The temple is the newest member of the ICC’s Canoo program — which provides free access to museums, science centres, parks, and historic sites across the country.

A bright, breezy day greeted members of the East Gwillimbury community as they welcomed the new Canadian citizens. The day started with the ICC’s signature roundtable discussions offering the new Canadian citizens a chance to share their journeys to citizenship with members of the community, and for everyone to reflect on what being Canadian means to them. Some new citizens observed that the cold weather was a shock and they all agreed that people had been welcoming and kind. The feeling of safety that comes from living within Canada’s secure and calm atmosphere was noted as a feeling that many Canadians take for granted.

The site of this citizenship ceremony made it especially meaningful. The Sharon Temple was where Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine sought the support of Anglophone Canadians for a North York byelection after being forced to withdraw from seeking a seat in his home riding of Terrebonne in 1841. LaFontaine was one of the architects of Canada’s immigration and citizenship policy. 180 years ago, he called for immigrants to come to Canada from around the globe, declaring that their children would be Canadians. He was a visionary who imagined an inclusive and egalitarian Canada stating, “…our political liberty can only be denied if we let go of the social equality that is a distinctive characteristic of our society”. His vision helped create the Canada that continues to welcome new Canadians today. This citizenship ceremony formed a proud part of that tradition.

More than a week has passed since the horrific terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. During this time, many of us have been reflecting on that horrific event and searching for answers to the difficult questions it has raised. This is happening not just in New Zealand, but also here in Canada, where a similar attack occurred just over two years ago in Québec City.

We think of the victims and mourn with and for their families and friends. We think of the attacker and question what led him to commit mass murder. And we think of the different communities traumatized by this latest act of atrocity—Muslim communities, immigrant communities, and refugee communities, among others.

And after all of this thinking, we wonder what to do.

“We are one. They are us,” said the Rt. Hon. Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, in a powerful statement of unity. In these six words, I believe we can find common cause and the building blocks of a call to action.

Inclusion and belonging are core tenets of the organization I now work with, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. All of our work is rooted in a fundamental belief: Diversity is a reality. Inclusion a choice. This choice—this conscious decision to deny an “us and them” mentality in favour of seeing only “us”—is at the heart of what we believe Canadian citizenship to be.

Seventy-five times a year, we put this principle into practice, by producing citizenship ceremonies in co-operation with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada—often referred to as “enhanced” citizenship ceremonies. In cities big and small, in schools, libraries, sports arenas, galleries, and other iconic spaces, we bring together Canadians and those just about to take their oaths of citizenship. We ask them about their journeys to citizenship. We invite them to tell their stories. We solicit their opinions on what citizenship means to them. And we ask the new citizens why they decided to join us—because becoming a Canadian citizen is, on their part, an active choice. Not everyone who comes to Canada takes out citizenship—many remain permanent residents—but the vast majority, 86 percent, do. Why? Why do the majority of newcomers to Canada choose to become one of us, often at the cost of giving up another citizenship?

Hope. Undeniably, that is the common factor. Hope for themselves. Hope for their children. Hope for their extended family. Hope that they may benefit from—and contribute to—a better society than the one they left.

This was the hope with which my parents brought me, my brother, and my sister to Canada. And it is the same hope that prevails amongst every new citizen I meet in my new role as CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. It is this hope that resonates with me and that fuels my commitment to fulfil the promise set out by the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul when they established our organization in 2006.

So, what is my call to action? It’s simple: Join us. Whether as an individual or as a group—from your neighbourhood, your workplace, your religious community, or any other association—join us. Come to one of our 75 annual enhanced citizenship ceremonies. Celebrate with new Canadians who are just joining our family. Talk to each other and share your stories. In doing so, realize for yourself—as we are convinced you will—that there is more that unites us than divides us. And that inevitably, truisms and clichés aside, you too will choose inclusion.

Information on upcoming citizenship ceremonies can be found here: https://www.inclusion.ca/program/building-citizenship/

By Yasir Naqvi, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship 

ICC community citizenship ceremonies are a celebration of Canada’s newest citizens and offer unique opportunities to reflect on what it means to be active, engaged citizens. We were thrilled to work with the Ice Hotel to welcome 30 new Canadian citizens at our ceremony in Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier on February 21, 2019.

Below are a few highlights from the ceremony.

Photo Credit: Institute for Canadian Citizenship/Étienne Dionne