Today I stood in what I truly hope is the last life-altering queue of my life: the one in front of 1035 St-Jacques, for people waiting to take their Canadian citizenship exam. As is always the case in life-altering queues, as opposed to say, the queue at McDonald’s, those waiting were on high alert, craning their necks and perking up their ears each time a representative of officialdom stepped out into the street to offer some instruction – things like: have your convocation notice and your permanent residence card ready. Also, as in other life-altering queues, people had arrived way ahead of time. Although I turned up half an hour before the appointed hour, I was the very last in line. It surprised me somewhat. Hadn’t years of living in organized Canadian society effaced that anxiety – of arriving late, too late, long after the precious resource in question had already been distributed to those who’d been eager or desperate enough to arrive at dawn? Surely, there was enough citizenship to go around for those of us already here?
But there wasn’t always enough. As the citizenship exam study booklet Discover Canada pointed out, the country had once imposed a Head Tax – a race-based entry fee – on those arriving from China, but only after the Chinese had built the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s. In 1910, the country had refused entry to black Oklahoman farmers, and in 1914 had turned away the Komagata Maru and its 375 Indians after the vessel had landed (and spent two months) in the port of Vancouver. Jewish immigrants were excluded from the 1920s until after the Second World War (these details were not in the booklet). It’s no worse than anywhere else, I suppose, and becoming a Canadian citizen, we are told, is a privilege, not a right (once you do become a citizen, however, all sorts of rights befall you – these are listed on the very first pages of Discover Canada). No wonder, then, that those waiting at St-Jacques this afternoon – especially those of us from butt-fucked lands – felt a little antsy. The immigration process is a tunnel with no illumination with rules like shifting sands. Eat a snack before dialing Immigration and Citizenship Canada ‘cuz you’ll be on hold for 12 hours.
But all is well now, here on the other side, with all these liberties and rights. Most importantly, I will travel freely to wherever my heart desires. Those were the life-altering queues of yore: coming from some place wretched and wanting to go abroad – to study, to get medical treatment, to visit a lover, or to just go on vacation for God’s sake - and the consul would decide, with full discretionary power. Such consuls wield the power of the gods the whole wretched world over. But even these were privileged queues compared to the ones that had come before, queues for bread and water once upon a time during a war.
I passed the exam and biked home along the Canal, past people sunbathing and reading in the grass, past the artsy FMR station, past swan-shaped paddle boats, past all those dreadful Griffintown condos, past skateboarders and prams, past many for whom it was never a privilege, always a birthright. And that’s all right - because for me, it will never grow old. I'll count my lucky stars.