The first time I felt Canadian was this past March. In 2015, I landed in Ontario when I was on the brink of turning 16, having left my mother tongue and favourite cities (in Egypt), along with my closest friends and most formative years (in the United Arab Emirates). I became Canadian when I was 21, attending the ceremony with my brother and father, and balancing wanting to rush home to return to my life against wanting my dad to celebrate the outcome of all his hard work and sacrifices. I grieved not being able to become Canadian at the same time as my mother.
With all my teen angst wrapped up in various cities in the Greater Toronto Area, I knew that if I had the choice, I wasn’t going to spend any more time than was required of me in Ontario. So, I left for university in Montreal.
I didn’t belong there either. I spent four years in Montreal, and when I think of that time, I hear laughter, I feel pain in my feet from a night of dancing, and I think of how my friendships have saved me over and over again. But after graduating, I knew I couldn’t stay for much longer – my broken French only got me so far in terms of integrating into Quebec society and stopped me from feeling at home in my new province.
2019. As far back as my memory will allow me to go, I had been chasing the feeling of belonging to a place and of wearing it on my sleeves for everyone to see. Still chasing that feeling, now also seeking the excitement I felt I was both owed and promised after graduating from university, I found myself in Madrid, Spain.
I didn’t take pictures of my friends or family, I didn’t take any remnants of my previous homes in Canada. I took what I needed and I left, convinced that this was the last time I’d see Canada. This was the European adventure I’d dreamed of, the reward for making it through university, my new home. Once there, I worked hard to tell myself that Madrid was now where I belonged.
2020. In early March, my mom called me to let me know that Justin Trudeau had made a statement urging all Canadians overseas to return home due to the pandemic.
I felt a loss: I wasn’t able to go through with my plan to leave Canada and never look back. I returned to Ontario grudgingly.
I felt a loss, but when my mom told me about Trudeau’s statement, that was also the first time I felt like I had a home base, like there was a place I could return to. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to travel again for a while, I felt more Canadian coming into the country than I did when I left. I felt guilty for not embracing Canada when it so readily accepted me back in.
In Madrid, I had found myself in the same position as I did in Montreal. My inadequate French was replaced by an inadequate Spanish, only this time without my safety net of familiar street names and all my friends’ apartments within walking distance of mine. I learned for what felt like the first time how to be comfortable by myself and how to depend on myself. I know that it was thanks to this experience that I could move to Vancouver on my own during a global pandemic, without a job or an apartment and surprisingly, with minimal anxiety.
I felt stuck when I first arrived, but I don’t anymore. I don’t feel completely Canadian, and I don’t want to – I had an identity for 16 years before ever coming here. But being able to retroactively embrace this Canadian side of me makes me feel like I can do the same for all the other sides of me too.