12.06.2011

the militarization of canadian life continues: citizenship ceremonies now include soldiers

I mentioned this yesterday in my post about the Canadian Peace Alliance's Peace & Prosperity not War & Austerity campaign, but it deserves special emphasis.

In April 2010, I wrote about the Conservative government's new citizenship guide. This is a booklet sent to all residents of Canada who have applied for Canadian citizenship, to help them prepare for the citizenship exam. You can read the full version here, or a more condensed version at The Mark. My conclusion:
This, in brief, is Stephen Harper's, Jason Kenney's and the Conservative Government's Canada. A country that: does not value peace and tolerance; measures its history by armed conflict; does not encourage its citizens to work for social justice; is not concerned with protecting the environment; reveres the monarchy; is mostly Christian; warns immigrants to tame their savage ways; and emphasizes obedience to authority.
Since then, the Harper Conservatives have taken another step in their attempt to reshape the image of Canada in their vision. Citizenship ceremonies are now required to include a speaker from the military, whose "sacrifices" will be acknowledged at the ceremony.
The Conservative government is strengthening the symbolic power of the military in public life by having a member of the Canadian Forces play a prominent role in citizenship ceremonies.

In an operational bulletin issued earlier this year, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration said highlighting the service of members of the armed forces is a way to underline to every new Canadian the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship.

The bulletin, which describes military service as one of the highest expressions of citizenship, states that members of the military should be seated on the main platform with the citizenship judge, that they can stand in the receiving line congratulating new citizens and that they may give a two- to three-minute speech. Where possible, the bulletin says the preference is for veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

The increased prominence of the military at these ceremonies is in keeping with other gestures made by Stephen Harper’s government. The new citizenship handbook, Discover Canada, for example, which was introduced by Minister Jason Kenney in 2009, placed much more emphasis on Canadian military history than the preceding guide.

Michael Fellman, a professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University, said it’s part of a gradual militarization of Canadian culture under the Conservatives.

“The Tories are in a long-range campaign to change Canadian values and make them more conservative,” Prof. Fellman said. “This is a way to show that the military is at the core of the meaning of citizenship.

“It’s an attempt to imbue new citizens with awareness of the military, and the military means a whole host of other things, sacrifice for freedom and all that stuff and it rallies people around these very chauvinistic values. It’s not the Canada I prefer to think about.”

Mr. Kenney’s office did not respond to an interview request.
I understand that many people believe that military service is an expression of patriotism. But there are many ways to express one's love or gratitude for one's new country. Why is a soldier addressing new citizens, rather than, say, a social worker? Or a peace activist - a volunteer from a local food bank - an ESL teacher?

The citizenship ceremony should be as free from politics as possible. One could argue that the concept of citizenship is itself political. Certainly the questions chosen for the citizenship exam are biased towards a particular reading of history. But those biases speak to larger questions of identity, the nation-state, and how official histories are constructed. Within that larger framework, however, becoming a Canadian citizen should be politically neutral. For the Harper government, the citizenship ceremony becomes another opportunity for indoctrination.

The inclusion of a military presence at the citizenship ceremony is also another example of the Harper government's politicization of the military, aligning the war in Afghanistan and the military in general with the Conservative party. I've heard from plenty of former Canadian reservists who do not vote Conservative and who despise this. In the US, the military is so overtly political that it took me a while to understand that this was not always the case in Canada. If Stephen Harper is on a quest to Americanize Canada, using the military as a political prop is an effective tool.

For an in-depth look the politicizing of the Canadian military, see the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Harper, the Military, and Wedge Politics (pdf), by Steven Staples.

4 comments:

M@ said...

As one of the aforementioned former Canadian reservists, I will say that this practice of involving the military in citizenship ceremonies is fucking disgusting.

johngoldfine said...

I don't have a horse in this race, but it seems wrongheaded. I like this:

Why is a soldier addressing new citizens, rather than, say, a social worker? Or a peace activist - a volunteer from a local food bank - an ESL teacher?

At my daughter's swearing-in, a federal judge (the eventual Sen. George Mitchell, in fact) did the honors, and that seems about right--one's legal status changes, and so the ceremony is conducted by a judge.

laura k said...

John, our ceremony was conducted by a judge, and I believe that hasn't changed. The military person would be present, shake hands with you afterwards (along with the judge) and is allowed to make a short speech.

I supposed I should be grateful that our ceremony was not marred this way!

impudent strumpet said...

I'm not in the military, but I'd sure feel annoyed and rather objectified if I or a member of my team were yoinked away from doing my actual job to be a prop every single time there's a citizenship ceremony in my area.

I got curious and looked it up: there's typically six a week in Toronto alone, two a day for three days. So that's half of a full-time job, just for this one office.

Now that I think about it, it seems like either they're disrespecting the fact that military people have an actual job to do, or the military's overstaffed if they have all these people sitting around to spare.