My parents are immigrants to Canada. My mom and dad came to this country with their families, from the Netherlands, in 1951 and 1952 respectively. They know what it is to adapt to a new culture, to learn a new language, and to start over again making friends and family connections in a foreign country. My parents understand all of this in a way that I likely never will.
It is widely understood that Canada is a nation of immigrants. From the first waves of non-aboriginal immigrants (the French and British), to the most recent waves from China, India, and the Philippines (those are the top three countries of origin for 2013), Canada is a nation built by those ‘from away’. This is true even of the earliest aboriginal populations of the continent, who likely arrived on the continent about 30,000 years ago via a land bridge from Asia.
Maybe we need a National Immigration Day in Canada.
Stories of migration and immigration are vital to the literature of Canada. And among the most recent contributions to that literature is Kim Thuy’s book Ru, a work of fiction that takes the form reflections and reminiscences – vignettes offered from the perspective of a Vietnamese refugee to Canada in the 1970’s. For many Canadians of my generation this narrative will resonate since we remember well the arrival of Vietnamese children in our school classrooms – I remember the day that Hoa arrived at my school, a girl whose family was sponsored by the churches in my town.
Amazing, isn’t it, how quickly the second generation (the children of immigrants, like me!) becomes at home in a place and begins to see other, more recent immigrant as newcomers and foreigners – they are seen as odd and somehow not a natural part of the cultural landscape.
At Kensington Church a small group of us recently read Ru and then met to discuss it. As you might expect, the book reflects on the harm and violence done to families through war and displacement; it gives a sense of the alienation experienced in a place where nothing feels like home; it points to the warm but often misplaced welcome offered by the “host” Canadians, who couldn’t understand that Minute Rice wasn’t what their guests preferred to eat.
Alongside Ru, and in order to understand what our faith offers on the subject of immigration, we also read a chapter from M. Daniel Carroll’s book Christians at Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. Although this book is written in the specific context of immigration (and “illegal” immigration) to the US, it offers a helpful survey of scriptural perspectives on migration, immigration, and refugees.
One thing that struck me, especially, was Carroll’s reminder that the people of Israel, even once they had entered the land of promise and “taken possession of it”, were reminded that they themselves were sojourners in the land (Leviticus 25:23). As much as they were at home there – and as much as God provided them a space and time to live distinctively as his people – they were also to know themselves, perpetually, as sojourners. Not quite at home, alien, and outsiders to the land they themselves inhabited.
With me, says God, you are but aliens and tenants.
Perhaps this would help them remember the priority of God in their lives; perhaps it would help them treat with gracious welcome others who were sojourners in their midst; perhaps it would help them realize God’s people are always on the move toward a life that more fully reflects God’s reign.
Which brings me back, again, to the realization of how quickly the recent immigrant – the second or third generation – becomes at home and comfortable in their country. It has become their country, they are at home, and they are the host.
I wonder whether we need a National Immigration Day in Canada – a day dedicated to remembering not only that we have all immigrated to this country, but to remember that we are all (no matter how long we’ve been here!) sojourners in a land that is not fully ours to possess or claim or to be at home in. Not a day, in others words, for those who are settled in Canada to remember those who have “just arrived,” but a day for every one of us to tell the story of our or our family’s immigration, and to reflect on what it means that each one of us still is an immigrant at heart.
In a way we already have times and places to tell these stories in Canada – we have Pier 21 in Halifax, we have the vast literature of the country (including Ru), we have Canada Day with its ritualized immigration ceremonies, and we have other institutions and frameworks within which we remember our immigrant past. But as far as I know, we have no specific day set aside to remember the immigrant nature of Canadians and of human beings in general.
Perhaps we need something more – perhaps a day of poetry and songs and readings and public events and videos and free museum visits – to recall our sojourning nature. The immigrant spirit defines us, and should define us in relation to one another and the land. No matter how long we have been here…
For those who are Christians – who walk in the way of the risen Jesus – there is something particularly compelling about such a possibility. Yes, we are at home in the creation given through Christ, and yes we receive our life and our home as a gracious gift, but we can only receive this gift as we walk with him toward the fulfillment of his kingdom. A journey that (despite our best wishes to the contrary, perhaps) is always over the horizon. We are all sojourners with Christ until we get there.