I immigrated to Canada in 1991 at the age of 21. I became Canadian few years after entering Canada as a landed immigrant. But I constantly felt that I am an immigrant: “immigrant forever”. If I dare to forget that I am an immigrant or try to “behave” like I have lived all my life in Canada, some people quickly remind me the precarity of my status: “Oh, did you arrive recently to Canada?” with a reference to the wave of Syrian refugees that Canada received in 2016. And, honestly, I am not offended. To the contrary, I like to be an immigrant. It makes feel humble and light as if I belonged to two worlds with attachments to neither.
When I am in Tunis, the city I was born in, a Tunisian taxi driver would ask me “ Where are you from?” Something in my demeanour, the choice of my words or my behaviour, make locals realize that I don’t belong and the taxi driver is absolutely right! Yes, I speak the dialect, yes I am obviously Muslim with my headscarf, but in my heart I despise the way people behave in the streets, constantly trying to cheat you, and the lack of civility especially among the “nouveaux riches” who think that they can buy everything except good manners, of course.
In Canada, it is no way better. Despite the fact, I went to university here and speak both official languages, run for politics, write books, I am constantly reminded that I don’t belong. Through looks, comments and sometimes as subtle as embarrassing silence that tells more than words. But that doesn’t bother me as much since I am proud to call my self an immigrant.
These days, with the media hype surrounding the celebration of the Canada’s 150th birthday, I started asking myself about the position I should adopt as an immigrant and as a Muslim vis à vis those “celebrations”.
In fact, my position emanates from two angles: my sense of belonging and my faith. As, an “immigrant forever” I feel that I have an official status: a Canadian citizen and a de facto one: a guest on the land of the Indigenous communities. I constantly thrive to keep these two statuses coherent as much as possible. I don’t want the Canadian rights that were granted to me through my citizenship to trumpet, threaten, bully or diminish the right of the ancestors of this land: the Indigenous communities.
I don’t want to behave like an entitled settler and pretend that the materialistic goods that I own are solely the result of my work or my sweat. Perhaps for some of it, but there is more in them, there is the land that was built on them and the roads that our cars and buses run on. Those lands were never ceded. On these lands, residential schools were built and children from Indigenous communities were taken away from their families, stripped off their culture and languages. These “barbaric acts” created a disruption of generations. Generations where adults and youth used to be so close and attached were forcibly separated. So I don’t want to be part of this injustice.
In environment, we have been convinced to reduce our ecological footprint, so why don’t we also try to reduce our “settler footprint” too?
Some new Canadians, claim that they were not part of this original injustice so they don’t feel concerned or at least in any way complicit of it. But, how about this example: let’s imagine that someone who steals money from a friend, never get caught and later becomes super rich and builds a huge and luxurious building. In the meanwhile he has a change of heart and becomes very generous and starts offering “free apartments in his building to people”. So how can we “normalize” these free apartments and forget the fact that they were unethically built? Isn’t some sort of “thief wash”, similar to money laundering that is today financially and criminally fought by many governments around the globe?
From a Muslim perspective, the question of celebrating “Canada 150th birthday” is also very problematic. The concept of immigration or “hijra” in Islam is so important. When Prophet Mohamed was persecuted in his hometown of Mecca, he left with his companions and established a new community in “Medina”. One of the first acts the Prophet did in Medina was to create “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” bonds between the immigrants (named al Muhajirin) and the original inhabitants of Medina (named al Ansar, or the ones who supported his message). Those bonds were not only spiritual but also financial and materialistic: they shared houses, lands and businesses. Such acts are crucial today as we are hearing about “reconciliation”. How can Muslims communities in Canada, pretend not to be affected by these discussions when the origin of Canada and still today’s wealth has been built around land confiscation, colonialism and exploitation of natural ressources?
We shouldn’t only give the example of Israel and denounce its occupation of the Palestinian lands. Closer home, we have Indigenous communities who still live under occupation in reserves without access to clean water, to schools and medical services and we have to educate ourselves about their situations and denounce as much as we can the treatment reserved by Canada to its First Nations. Islam isn’t a religion of peace; it is a religion of justice. If we feel powerless to change oppressive institutions, we have at least to denounce systems that underlie them and allow injustice to operate and be perpetuated.
For all these reasons and more, I would be extremely careful in joining any celebration. Unfortunately, some of these Canada 150th birthday celebrations, become photo ops for some politicians to show how well “integrated” the Muslim immigrant communities are. In realities, those shallow ceremonies are erasing memories of colonialism to build new fake memories of belonging. We have to be vigilant and ask ourselves “ what are we celebrating here”?