Every year, Canada welcomes about a quarter of a million immigrants. According to the 2011 census, foreign-born residents represent 200 ethnic origins and make-up over a fifth of the country’s total population. Still, most Canadian-born citizens know little about the process through which some of their neighbours become compatriots. Valerian Mazataud, a French photographer now living in Montreal, became a Canadian citizen recently and set out to document the last leg of the journey: the citizenship ceremony, a body of work currently on view at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie en Gaspésie. Along with Veronica Johnson, a citizenship judge, and Mina Hanna a new citizen and architect, he explains why the ceremony deserves your attention.
Valerian Mazataud, photographer
“I’m originally from France and became a citizen of Canada in 2014. Initially, I was skeptical about the ceremony. I thought it would be very bureaucratic and I was a little apprehensive about pledging allegiance to the Queen. Once I got there, and saw how nicely people had dressed and how celebratory their mood was, I couldn’t help but be moved. Overall, it feels a bit like a graduation ceremony. The presiding judge delivers a somewhat standardized speech that covers everything from the politics of the country to women’s equal rights, the importance of volunteering and the responsibility of exercising the right to vote and adding some personal anecdotes here and there. And, after taking the oath, you finally get the grail: your citizenship certificate.
As I arrived to my own citizenship ceremony, I noticed one thing: we were all asked to sign a photo release form allowing journalists covering the event to use images in which we appear. It gave me an idea: here you have a gathering of people of different origins, all agreeing to be photographed… wasn’t it the best place to work on a project that speaks about the newcomers?
Since I wanted to experiment with new approaches to, I recorded the ceremony, using an analog video camera, much like the one my uncles used to film our family gatherings. Then I took stills of some of the taped scenes while they were playing on a TV screen. It’s a way to translate the dual nature of the ceremony. On the one hand, it’s very personal and meaningful, and on the other, it’s very formal and pragmatic.
Given today’s ongoing migrant crisis, I felt it was important to highlight that whereas some people have the good fortune of being born citizens of a peaceful and fair nation, others have to acquire it by overcoming a series of administrative obstacles and, in Canada’s case, having to pledge allegiance to the queen of England, which, let’s be honest, is a little odd…”
Veronica Johnson, citizenship judge
“In 2000, I was at my daughter’s graduation when one of the speakers told us about his journey. He was born in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century of Jamaican parents and as a young black man, faced a lot of challenges. Still, he said, he didn’t dwell on them because he understood that he had opportunities in Canada that he wouldn’t have had otherwise and that it was up to him to show the country what he had to offer. By the time he addressed us, he had received the Order of Ontario, the Order of Canada and had been a citizenship judge. His testimony touched me, since I was born in Jamaica and moved here in 1968. He planted a seed in my head that bloomed ten years later, when I when I decided to apply for a position as a Citizenship judge – a position which I got in 2011.
Our job involves assessing applications referred to us to ensure that applicants meet the requirements of the Citizenship Act, administering the Oath of Citizenship at a ceremony where we stress the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and promoting citizenship to new and established Canadians. No matter how many times I’ve done ceremonies, I’m always excited to do another one. I always make the speech current and personal. In the few minutes that I have, I want to create a relationship with the new citizens and inspire them. I want them to know that, like me, they can contribute to the nation, even if there are challenges; that it is possible for someone who comes from a small town on a Caribbean Island with a grade 13 education to achieve success here through hard work and perseverance.
When I became a Canadian citizen in the mid 70’s, it was strictly an administrative process. You went to an office, answered a few questions, signed a paper and they handed you your card. That was then. Now, it’s treated more like the milestone that it is: the culmination of a lengthy process. Moreover, I believe it is important for those that are becoming citizens to publicly express that they will be faithful to the country, and that they will obey our rules and laws.
Valerian’s images are nebulous. The first one shows a man, but not his head It really caught my eye. Why didn’t he show his head? Still, the suit and the red tie he’s wearing, as well as the red background convey the solemnity, the formality of the event and act as symbols of Canada. It seems to me that part of his message is that citizenship is not a black and white thing, that it’s a journey, a process, a series of movements from one country to another.”
Mina Hanna, Canadian citizen since October 2015 and architect
“When the time came for my citizenship ceremony, I knew what I was getting into. I had gone to my sister’s a while back. I went to the exact same hall as she did: a generic office space in Scarborough, with low ceilings and rows of chairs. There was so little space that we were only allowed to bring two people with us. In the background, a video was showing beautiful Canadian landscapes, accompanied by ceremonial music. It felt somewhat stilted and strict.
Still, it was such an important moment for me. I first came here on a student visa eight years ago, then on a work permit. When it became clear that Canada was the place where I wanted to build my life, it made sense to become a citizen. I applied in 2010. It took a lot of time to gather all the required documents. Everything had to be translated. I had to get transcripts from every school I attended, write a letter proving my proficiency in either English or French, get police checks and other paperwork from my home country, Egypt. In the middle of the whole process, the Arab revolutions broke and for a while, the Egyptian embassy was closed. These events put a strain on my application, but I finally got it days before the 2015 elections. I could even go and vote!
Given that there’s a lot of uncertainty associated with the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, getting it calls for celebration, which is what the ceremony ought to be. And in some ways it was. Seeing people from different backgrounds, different cultures, all dressed to the nines and joyful under one roof, made it feel that way. They acted as if they were at a wedding. In a way, it is as important of a moment. Becoming the citizen of a new country is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in your life. And it’s a hard one. You’re leaving friends and family for the possibility of a better life, without ever being sure that you’ll even get the citizenship. It’s a great risk. However, taking the oath doesn’t feel like saying “I do” because you’re one voice drowned out amongst many; whereas in a wedding there’s only the two of you.
Valerian’s photos remind me of scenes from Adam Curtis documentaries [British filmmaker concerned with questions of power]. The photograph of the numbered chairs stayed with me. I don’t remember that from my ceremony, but maybe they were there. In any case, it does drive home the point that citizens are numbers. Overall, there’s an ambiguity in the images, which illustrates a little bit how I felt. But, I guess, had it been me behind the camera, I would have focused more on the space, how drab it was and how more attention should be paid to it. Maybe Canada should build halls dedicated to such ceremonies, rather than hold them in nondescript buildings.”
The series The End of the Earth is on view at the Centre culturel de Paspébiac
7, boul. Gérard-D.-Lévesque Est Paspébiac (Qc)
During the 7th edition – Rencontres internationales de la photographie en Gaspésie
until the end of September 2016