You never forget your coming-to-Canada story—nor the day you made it official
BY VALERIE HOWES
Every Canadian immigrant vividly remembers key moments in their citizenship story, like a highlight reel. One part we never forget is the day we were sworn in. Here’s what forging a new life here has meant to me and four other new Canadians in the GTA.
Valerie Howes, Scotland
I came to Canada to study at age 24; I was on my own with my son, Sean, then three. More studies and jobs followed, and for 11 years I’d renew our temporary papers, planning our lives from year to year. But once Sean was in his teens, he started asking, “Am I Scottish or Canadian?” and he wouldn’t take “Both!” for an answer. It was important to him to establish a more solid identity. At that point, I applied for our citizenship.
After we were approved, I shared news of our upcoming citizenship ceremony on social media. A Facebook friend took note and made phone calls so she could actually preside over the event in Scarborough. Anita Stewart—the founder of Food Day Canada, a celebration of regional foods across the country—had recently been named to the Order of Canada. “That means I have the secret power of turning people into Canadians,” she explained. I was a food writer, so it meant a lot to me that she’d do the honours.
At Scarborough City Hall, inside the waiting area, there were kids from Latin America, Afghanistan, Asia and all over, dressed in their countries’ traditional clothes and excitedly running around. The room was abuzz, so a security guard stood on a chair to get our attention. “Good morning,” she shouted a few times. “In five minutes, you will all be going into the next room to become Canadians.” Before she could continue, we all erupted in cheers. She smiled at the other guards. That was the first of several times I wept that day.
During our ceremony, Anita made a speech inviting us all to cook dishes from our home countries and share them with neighbours to keep our traditions alive and add to our new country’s cuisine and culture. She hugged Sean and me when it was our turn to shake hands and receive our certificates. I still get tears when I look at our photos from that day: Anita in her robes, me in a cherry-patterned dress to honour our culinary connection and Sean smiling shyly, a mini Canadian flag in his hand.
Becoming Canadian felt different—like “Let’s get married!” instead of “Let’s see how things go!” Since taking my oath, I’ve travelled all over the country to write about Canada’s regional foods. I’m grateful for everything Canada has given Sean and me: career opportunities; friends who are family; a new family member, Pricilla, who joined us through adoption last year; and a cuddle crew of dogs. Canada truly feels like home now. Our lives and our hearts are here.
Tino Dente, Italy
I remember standing at the train station when I was four years old, in December 1953. The steam of the train was coming in, and my mother was beside me, holding an orange-coloured suitcase loaded with cheeses, olives, tangerines and sausages she’d packed to feed us from Palermo to Halifax. After the train, we continued by boat, sleeping in bunk beds in the cargo hold, with buckets beside them so we could throw up at night. It was a 10-day passage, in the bitter cold of winter, and pretty traumatic.
My father had lost everything in the war. He had gone to Canada two years before we arrived. His first job was cutting trees in Labrador, which was a brutal shock to him after the warm Sicilian climate. Later he became a farmhand, but his employer wrote into his contract that he had to give back all his wages for lodging. His uncle came up from Connecticut and freed him from those shackles, and then Dad became a construction worker and could finally pay our passage.
We moved to Toronto, where we had Jewish, German, Ukrainian, Italian and Irish folks in our neighbourhood. It was pretty rundown, but we all shared our experiences as newcomers, and neighbours treated one another as extended family. My mom and dad worked hard, and we had a good family life. There was always food on the table, and we got our first TV.
I became a citizen in August 1957, when I was eight. I don’t remember the ceremony, but I remember my father staying up late at night studying for the citizenship test. It was an emotional day for us all when he passed. We celebrated that evening—a big family meal with the six of us, an aunt and an uncle. We ate around a Ping-Pong table so we could all fit.
I feel fortunate I had both the old culture and the Canadian way—and that I got a good business education here. Today I run a company that manufactures and distributes industrial safety products across North America. Though my wife was born and raised Canadian, we have instilled that essence of the old country into our children. They respect their grandparents, and they’re very family oriented.
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I was 15 when I came to Canada in 2002. I wasn’t supposed to be staying, but my life in Trinidad was not the best, and the family member who brought me could not support my needs. I called the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAS) myself and went into foster care the year I arrived. CAS really fought for me, and because of my situation, I was granted permanent residency and became a Crown ward.
I struggled being here alone. I missed my family, but home was not the safest place for me. So I built up all my strength to stay here in Canada. But with all the big changes in my life, I couldn’t focus, so I dropped out of school.
Then, at 21, I met my beautiful partner, Davi, who I’ve now been with for nine years. She and her family took me under their wing: They helped me age out of the system, and I was able to complete my high school equivalency tests, get into college and apply for citizenship.
My girlfriend was with me at my citizenship ceremony in 2014, in Mississauga. I broke down in tears when I walked into the ceremony room—it was such a special atmosphere. There were people from Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and all over the world, and you felt like you belonged. Singing the national anthem together, it was—wow—so beautiful. And taking the oath of citizenship felt very important. Everybody was happy and crying, and there were cheers as people collected their certificates. Seeing the smiles from the judge when you walked up, and they shook your hand and congratulated you, was a surreal feeling.
Having your citizenship certificate makes you feel so powerful, because it means this is your home now. You have rights as a woman in Canada. You feel safe. After becoming a citizen, I completed the Child and Youth Care program at Humber College, and now I’m working with kids in the child welfare system. Being able to understand from my own experiences what a youth feels when they’re in care means I can say “Hey, you’re not alone.” I love that, in my work and life in Canada, I can give back.
Tedd Konya, United States
I met my Canadian husband, Garry, in a club at Toronto Pride in the summer of 2006. After a two-year long-distance relationship, we debated if he should go to the U.S. or if I should come here. We chose Canada because we wanted to get married and start a family, and same-sex marriage was already legal here.
I came back as a permanent resident in 2008, and Garry and I married a year later. A few years after that, we adopted our two sons. I became a citizen on an unseasonably cold day in November 2014, and my husband brought our boys (then aged five and six) to the ceremony. Former police chief Bill Blair was there, watching an in-law being sworn in, and there were people of every race and culture.
The ceremony was right after an election, and I remember the judge apologizing to us all that we’d just missed being eligible to vote. The biggest emotion I felt that day was “Finally!” I’d applied for citizenship the very day I was eligible, and it took three years from that point.
I feel Canada is the country I should have been born in. I’m more accepted as a gay man here than in the U.S. I didn’t even realize that was an issue in my life until I moved, and I noticed how nice it was that people didn’t pause or seem surprised or uncomfortable if I said “my husband.” I share more values with Canadians, and by becoming a citizen here, I’m able to have the life I want.
Nadjib Alamyar, Afghanistan
When I was about 10, the Taliban took over my country. My parents had me smuggled out, to the Netherlands, because my father had worked for the previous government and my life was at risk. That was the last time I saw my family. While we have some contact now by phone, it’s sporadic, because when you’re away so long, you lose the attachment. I don’t even speak our language fluently anymore.
I had a difficult life in Europe, as the human smugglers who brought me there kept me and held me hostage, so to speak, for most of my teen years. A teacher I trusted realized things were very bad for me and helped me flee to Canada when I was 21.
I barely spoke English when I arrived as a refugee in 2008, but some amazing Canadian people from the Bloor Street United Church took me under their wing and helped me through university. Now I consider them my actual family.
I was granted citizenship in 2015. I felt very proud that day, and I felt empowered, because now I could participate in elections and be equal to any other Canadian before the law. A close friend came with me and was very excited to see the swearing-in process. After the ceremony, all my friends celebrated and gave me a huge cake with my name and a Canadian flag on it.
Now I work as a case counsellor specialist with WoodGreen Community Services, an agency that serves vulnerable community members, including newcomers. My education and my experiences as a former refugee enable me to help the most vulnerable members of our community with diligence and compassion. I’m glad that, as a Canadian citizen, I get to help other people get out of difficult situations.
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