Nicole Castillo Guerrero, a Chilean-Canadian Ryerson student, says despite her citizenship, she’ll never feel truly Canadian. PHOTO: FARNIA FEKRI

Torn between countries

In Features /

A new generation of transnational students are rewriting the rules of citizenship. Shannon Baldwin reports

Her home could no longer be where she lived.

It could no longer be the country she was from. Everything from her life in Chile was either packed up or left behind. Thirdyear social work student Nicole Castillo Guerrero, her mother and older brother were moving to Canada to make a better life for their family. But their first Canadian home was not large or glamorous.

They lived in a basement in their aunt’s home in Etobicoke.

When Castillo Guerrero moved to Canada 12 years ago, no one in her immediate family could speak English. Her mother had to work whatever odd job she could get through family connections to support them – often working two or three jobs a day. But she was determined to be self-sufficient and within a few months they were able to move out of the basement and into an apartment of their own.

Moving out was the first accomplishment on their list of things to achieve as a family in Canada, but their longest running goal wouldn’t be achieved until this past August – when her entire family received Canadian citizenships.

“It was a big deal, we were all so relieved and so happy because it’s a thing you’ve been working towards since you come to Canada,” Castillo Guerrero says. “Even though it’s a piece of paper it represents that you accomplished one of the goals you had coming into the country.”

For an increasing number of Toronto students, becoming a Canadian citizen is high on their priority list. Coordinator of International Student Services Diana Ning says 80 to 90 per cent – depending on the year – of Ryerson’s international students are interested in becoming permanent residents and the number of people who become citizens increases annually. The majority of this 80 to 90 per cent will eventually apply for their citizenship.

“A lot of people see Canada [particularly Toronto] as a place of opportunities and a representation of multiculturalism,” Ning says.

But while there are an increasing number of students applying to get and ready to get their Canadian citizenships, feeling Canadian may be the harder process. It can take a long time to truly become a proud Canadian, Ning says. It took almost 15 years for Jack Everett, a third-year acting-program student attending George Brown College, to feel this sense of Canadian identity.

“Deep down I’m American, which is crazy,” Everett says. “It’s the memories that make it home, but if I were to go back to live in the States, I would say I’m Canadian.” Everett is still waiting to be sworn in but he says he “is ready to be a Canadian.”

Yet, Castillo Guerrero says she will never feel Canadian. Even though she has no intention of going back to her country of origin or living anywhere other than Canada, Castillo Guerrero says she will continue to identify as Chilean.

“I think that for me it’s always going to be a thing where I identify so much with my background and identify so much with my experiences as an immigrant that it’s not important to identify as a Canadian,” Castillo Guerrero says.

“Many people do want to assimilate as quickly as possible,” sociology professor Camille Hernandez Ramdwar says. “You learn to speak and act and move according to your context, but for me this is where we’re moving globally – increasingly into transnational people.”

Self-proclaimed transnational person, Hernandez-Ramdwar says that even she does not feel fully Canadian or fully connected to her Trinidad and Tobago roots and that this inability to identify with one culture is common for many people.

Ning says that feeling a sense of Canadian pride does not mean forgetting your roots or feeling any less connected to them. Even she – who automatically lost her Chinese citizenship when she became Canadian – describes herself as a proud Chinese-Canadian and encourages the increasing number of students interested in applying for their citizenship to go for it. Ramna Shahzad says she knew she wanted to apply for her Canadian citizenship before even getting to Canada.

The third-year journalism student says she loves her Pakistani background and loved studying in the Middle East, but opportunities for post-secondary education were almost non-existent for her if she stayed. So, her family decided to move to Canada to provide better opportunities for her and her two older sisters.

“I got lucky with my Canadian citizenship,” Shahzad says. She applied for it immediately after her three-year probation period in Canada and got it almost exactly one year later – June 10. But her sisters haven’t had the same luck.

Although the three girls applied for their citizenship at the same time, when Shahzad got her confirmation of time to write the knowledge test, her sisters got a questionnaire that required further proof that they had created lives in Canada. Both of her sisters currently work at the Royal Bank of Canada. Shahzad says that getting her citizenship was exciting but also frustrating since “there was no particular reason given for why [her sisters] didn’t get it at the same time.”

Still, getting to celebrate Canada day for the first time as a Canadian citizen was a special moment for Shahzad. She says that while she watched fireworks and enjoyed time with her family, people kept coming up to her and congratulating her on becoming Canadian – and although it’s hard to define, she really did feel Canadian.

“Within a couple of years [living in Mississauga] I was at Ryerson and this is a really great place because there are so many immigrants and people from all over the world,” Shahzad says.

But even though Toronto is a mixing pot of cultural origins, Castillo Guerrero was never able to bridge the gap between feeling like an immigrant in Canada and feeling Canadian.

“I had different experiences growing up than my friends who were born in Canada, but that has to do a lot with the fact that we lived in a different class,” says Castillo Guerrero.

Even today Castillo Guerrero says the majority of her friends are immigrants who are from working class families because it’s easier for her to relate to them. The surprising thing for Castillo Guerrero is that even though she feels like she can’t identify with being Canadian, when she goes back to Chile, her Chilean friends and family see her as Canadian.

The same thing has started to happen with Everett. When he goes to Florida to visit family, the mannerisms people use that he once found normal have become alien to him. He says that his personality and the way he conducts himself around others have become very Canadian, but much of his identity has comes from where he lives now.

“Right when I hit Pearson Airport, when I see our city streets and I see downtown, I know I’m home.”

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