First Canada Day as a Canadian

1 Jul

I’m standing in a room with about 100 people. A couple elementary-school boy are weaving in and out the crowd, wearing embroidered gold satin waistcoats, baggy pants and kufi hats; a baby girl sits on her suited up dad’s lap in a long velvet dress, a big bow adorning her hairless head; I’m here in a tight black dress covered in cherries–the most festive thing I own. The chatter is so loud, that the woman at the front of the room has to yell at first for our attention. But the volume drops as soon as she starts talking: “Good afternoon, All. This is the last stage in your citizenship process,” she says. “In fifteen minutes, you’ll be going into the next room to become Canadians.” The room erupts in cheers. Everybody is grinning, even those already wiping tears.

Waiting to become Canadian citizens

My son and I were in Canada 15 years before we arrived at our Citizenship ceremony last October. I’d renewed our permanent residency a few times, but there was something scary about taking that final step. I loved Canada and it had been good to me; did we need a piece of paper to prove our commitment? Also I couldn’t quite picture myself saying “I’m a Canadian” with a straight face. Unlike my son, who has a Canadian accent, I still yell “GO LIE DOOOON!” at my dogs and have to repeat words like “book,” “cook” and “food” a few times till people understand me–unfortunate problem for a culinary writer. But my son was eager to take that final step, to feel properly like we belonged, so we started the process.

Becoming Canadian is not fast. It’s not as torturous as becoming a resident, which took three years, several hundred hours of which I spent on hold to the Citizenship and Immigration Call Centre, waiting for someone at the other end to refuse to answer basic questions. But still, it was 16 months from the time we had our smile-free photos taken and forms sent off till I got a date for the citizenship exam.

The exam-prep booklet, Discover Canada is a 68-page brick. I though after 15 years I pretty much knew how things worked around here. Turns out I was an uncultured fool. You had to know your battles–not just where and when they happened but whether the French or British Empire came out on top. You had to know your Olympic medallists from your inventors from your literary giants from your hockey champs–there’s a huge photo of the Habs winning the Stanley Cup in the book, which was a nicer memory jogger than the photo of the dude in cuffs in the chapter on Law and Order. And you had to learn everything from the flowers to the capitals to the economic engines of every province and territory.

When I was too weary from cramming that booklet, I’d finish my evenings on YouTube watching Canadian Heritage Minutes. I went into the exam still shaky on my battles, but super-strong on my medical breakthroughs. “Burnt toast! Dr. Penfield, I can smell burnt toast!”

The studying paid off, I aced my written paper. And my Scottish pronunciation on the spoken test wasn’t enough to make the examiner think I only spoke Russian, as someone once did in 1998, the year I arrived in Montreal.

The day before our ceremony, I got a call from Anita Stewart, the founder of Food Day Canada. She was named to the Order of Canada in 2011 for her food activism and academic work in Canadian food culture. “Do you know what that means?” she asked me on the phone. “I have magical powers to turn people into Canadians.”

Anita had seen my post on Facebook about my upcoming Citizenship ceremony and made a few phone calls behind the scenes. While she normally swore in new Canadians in and around her hometown of Elora, she had asked the folks in Scarborough, where I had been summoned, if she could swear in me and my son, not to mention the other 99 or so people there for their big day.

Canadian flags

We have no other family in Canada, so it was amazing on the day to see Anita step up front on such an important occasion to us. She delivered a fantastic speech, urging all the new Canadians in the room to add new dishes and ideas from their home cultures to the multicultural soup pot that’s Canadian cuisine. And when my son and I went forward to collect our certificates, she didn’t just shake our hands, she went for the hug.

Anita Stewart and Val Howes
The whole day was so special…



… although it ended in a bar with a round of whisky, because you should never forget your roots.

Whisky toast


We’ve been Canadian for about seven months now, and it does feel different. The changes are subtle: Like I bought my friend’s dog a Hudson’s Bay blanket coat a couple months ago, as if I’d been doing that all my life. I voted for the first time too. And tonight I went for an evening jog during a July 1st fireworks display, and it just felt right.

On my first Canada Day as a Canadian, I’ve decided to share a few posts on eating like a Canadian, from my travels across the country. Being a food and travel writer in Canada is the best job ever. There’s so much variety in the bounty from region to region, and things just keep getting more and more exciting as the locavore movement explodes, and my compatriots in every corner are working with traditional, novel or forgotten ingredients in new ways.

As Anita pointed out in her speech, our food culture (did you see how I said our?) isn’t static or subject to a million rules–it’s young, fluid and open to being enriched by the people from all the diverse backgrounds who call this place home.

Happy Canada Day, my Friends. Thanks for letting me in and sharing all your good food!



1. The Great Quebec Cheese Board: how to put together the fromage platter parfait.

2. Consider the Crab: how to kill a dungeness crab (Sorry, Crab)

3. Lemon Rosemary Jelly: how to make crazy-delicious preserves with herbs out your own garden

4. 7 Tips for Great Barbecued Ribs: how to barbecue (an essential Canadian skill), like you were born and raised in PEI

5. Wild Blueberry Scones: how to get ’em fluffy, Nova-Scotia style


6. Tomato Plants in the Sky: how to grow fresh produce year-round like an ingenious Montrealer

7. Jasper Carrot Soup: how to make soup like a Rocky Mountain master

8. Deep-Fried Bitter-Melon Balls and Bubble-Wrap Waffles, Holy Mazola!: how to celebrate Chinese New Year like a Richmond kid

9. Martin Picard’s Chocolate Bars: how to make the world’s most time-consuming, expensive and delicious candy bars

10. Culinary Adventures in Newfoundland: how to have the trip of a lifetime

Scallop over juniper

4 Responses to “First Canada Day as a Canadian”

  1. Pat Anderson July 2nd, 2014 at 1:16 AM #

    Wonderful piece. 🙂
    Your first Canada Day as a member. So glad you shared your remembrances of your ceremony with us, and glad to have you as one of us on the country’s birthday.

    Here’s to many more celebrations!

    • Valerie Howes July 2nd, 2014 at 8:59 AM #

      Thanks, Pat! It was a lovely day to look back on.

  2. Anita July 2nd, 2014 at 6:55 AM #

    So, here I am sitting in my big green chair pouring over early morning emails and then this came along and I’m now have to find some tissues.
    Presiding over Citizenship Ceremonies is one of the greatest privileges of my life, Val. I just had to come to your ceremony to not only swear you in and sing O Canada with you for the very first time officially, but to really say WELCOME!
    There’s a quotation that goes sort of like this…”The real voyage of discover consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Your writing reflects your totally fresh perspective. I hope, for you and your son, that Canada is indeed that world of wonder. It still is for me.
    Happy Canada Day, First Edition!

    • Valerie Howes July 2nd, 2014 at 8:59 AM #

      Our big new country will never stop delighting us. Thanks for doing the honours last year at our ceremony, Anita!

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