The Queen and I

July 31st, 2013

Maytree President Ratna Omidvar’s op ed was originally published on July 22, 2013 in the Globe and Mail.

HRH Queen Elizabeth and I have a complicated relationship.

I was born in India, barely two years after independence. The British may have left, but their influence on Indian culture and society had not. I grew up devouring books by Hardy and Dickens, wrestled with Milton and Donne and chuckled with P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde. I knew about the War of the Roses, read about the Charge of the Light Brigade and Britain’s courageous roles in the First World War and the Second (in which Indian regiments fought and perished alongside their British comrades).

When I finally visited the United Kingdom in my early 20s, I felt, in an odd sense, that I was coming home: I knew the landscapes, the narrow streets, the rain-drenched gardens, the history, the people.

But just as India was slowly awakening to its new-found freedom, so was my awareness of its years of colonization under the British. In Amritsar, where I grew up, I was taken to visit Jallianwala Bagh, not far from the Golden Temple, where Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and his soldiers drew fire on 15,000 men, women and children in 1919, killing at least 379 and wounding 1,100 (these are British numbers, Indian estimates were much higher).

For this, he was celebrated in Great Britain as a hero of British Raj. I learned that my grandfather was imprisoned, along with thousands of others, for the simple act of burning Western clothes and donning Indian homespun. I learned that Winston Churchill, whose speeches I so admire, dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir.”

And most horrifically, I learned that in Louis Mountbatten’s rush to meet his Aug. 15, 1947, deadline for the declaration of independence, whole communities, families and villages were separated by seemingly arbitrary lines to partition India and Pakistan. More than a million people perished brutally as a result. I remember devouring books such as Freedom at Midnight and Train to Pakistan. And so grew my complicated relationship with the Queen. Admiring on the one hand, horrified on the other.

Many years later, I found myself as a new (and very grateful) resident of Canada. I knew that Canada, too, had a historical relationship with the Queen. I knew that her representative in Canada was the Governor-General. I learned that before the patriation of the Constitution, every amendment to the supreme law (the British North America Act) wanted by our Parliament in Ottawa had to be ratified by parliamentarians in London.

I learned that Canadians were wildly enthusiastic about the Queen and her Royal Family, but that this enthusiasm was not necessarily shared by francophones and many in the aboriginal and native communities. Still later, I learned that Rideau Hall kept a permanent suite of rooms reserved for the Queen and her family whenever she chose to visit us. Kept perfectly, of course, and dusted every day.

When I received my much-prized citizenship, I swore allegiance to the Queen. It was a wonderful day in my life, but I remember wondering why I was not swearing allegiance to Canada. And it occurred to me that this was the first time in my complicated relationship with the Queen that I was formally her subject.

History has its place. We must learn and understand our history, cheer it and cherish it when deserved, learn from it, accept our mistakes and correct them if we can. But we need not be held hostage by it. To stride confidently into the future, we must know where we came from, but we don’t need to be constrained by the past.

As a country made up of so many different peoples – francophones, aboriginals, anglophones, Acadians, new and old immigrants from all corners of the globe – Canada has found a particularly successful narrative in absorbing difference. As Pico Iyer says, we have a “global soul.” We have learned to discard rigidity in favour of gradual accommodation. The citizenship oath could be a much valued opportunity to draw us together in an oath of allegiance to Canada, its laws and its institutions.

Naysayers use the argument that if we don’t like it here, we should stay away. This only serves to draw the lines between us more deeply. I like to invoke the image that new immigrants make Canada their home and in time have the right, nay, the obligation, to rearrange the metaphorical furniture in our new home as part of an engaged citizenry.

But there is middle ground. Let the royalists keep the symbols, the portraits of the Queen, and insert the word “Royal” in front of Canadian institutions such as the Air Force. Let’s wave the Union Jack when a member of the Royal Family visits. Let’s go wild about the Duchess of Cambridge’s newest dress. But let’s change the oath of allegiance, much along the lines of Australia’s. This middle-ground approach can (and should) be imitated in Canada.

Australian Senator Philip Faulkner gave the views of his Labor government when that country shed the sovereign from its citizenship oath in 1994, instead asking for commitment to Australia and its values. He called it “unifying” that “the process of nation-building is enhanced by reinforcing the notion of an ‘Australian’ citizenship. Australian citizenship, with its attendant rights and obligations, is part of the glue which binds the nation and its citizens in a manner that gives adequate recognition to the reciprocity of that bond.”

How true this is of Canada, too.

Originally published on July 22, 2013, as an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.

Ratna Omidvar is President of Maytree, a private foundation in Toronto. She is the chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) and the co-chair of DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project. In 2011, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada for her advocacy on behalf of immigrants and for her devotion to reducing inequality.

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