Winter Kale and the Old Man
Portraits of Queen Elizabeth the Second in full regalia lined the walls. The oil paintings spanned the mood of her reign. Sixty prospective citizens stood, left hands raised, their free hands clutching Korans, Bibles, Books of Mormon. I clutched a pine cone in my vest pocket.
“I swear I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of England, Her Heirs and Successors, according to law and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
Soon-to-be citizens, and eager relatives, repeated in unison, line by line, the required oath while I practised the liberties granted by the Charter of Rights, framed in gold behind me: freedom of conscience, belief, opinion, and expression. So, I moved my lips, without sound, as a fish speaks on dry land. Half a sentence did not compromise my integrity: “Fulfilling my duties as a Canadian citizen.” A loose enough uniform that would not confine my movement or constrict my body of beliefs.
I had no desire to swear blind allegiance to compulsory Kings or Queens. I could make up my own mind about who to trust, thank you very much. The thought of becoming a colonial British subject irritated me. I had never been a believer there was a difference, grammatical or otherwise, between subject and object as exemplified by ex-radio announcers, ex-football players and ex-movie stars turned politicians. What if the Royal family, crazed from centuries of inbreeding, declared war on my sister and my country across the ocean? I had already fled a Continent where one demonstrated love of country by the willingness to be trained in the art of shedding blood. Loving a nation meant loving it to death.
“It is with extraordinary pleasure that I welcome you to this final step into the Canadian family.” The judge sat poised and dignified, giving solemnity to the occasion. A touch of friendliness punctuated her speech.
I supposed they considered me an adopted child of this extended Canadian family. As with any family, I stepped into the dynamics of favouritism, unspoken shame, obedience, rewards, punishments, the dark secrets rusting behind the painted facade of family life. Its crumbling values were still cherished, its faults glossed over—a flawless and framed family portrait.
A thunderous voice interrupted my musings and commanded, “Everyone smile.” The whitewash of a camera flash blinded me. Tentative flags waved. A few of us would join the growing ranks of runaways, black sheep, forgotten daughters, scapegoats. As with any dysfunctional family, Canada suffered from the malaise of intimate urban living, a daily friction without a common language of the heart, a language to peel off the lies and the suffering with the breath of tenderness. A sense of guilt overwhelmed me. What if people could read my mind—would they accuse me of being difficult, of being disloyal? I did not want to sound ungrateful. “Be positive. Everything in the world is precisely as it’s supposed to be,” a new friend, twirling a glimmering quartz crystal on her necklace, had recently counselled.
Centuries from now, would historians accuse me of being an accomplice to the decimation of North America’s indigenous cultures through the slow, agonising process of colonisation? They could never accuse me of bare-handed murder; but perhaps I exterminated them with the automobile roads where I drove, the semi-attached house by the river, the getaway cabin in the woods, the parks I hiked on weekends, the innocent and banal activities of modern life.
I examined the sober dignitaries in the courtroom, the aligned chairs, the polished brass, the ironed skirts and pressed suits. I would have preferred a First Nations welcome. I pictured us huddled in the womb of a sweat lodge, our faces radiant from the incandescent rocks. An elder, not in a black robe, but a cape of cedar bark, recited prayers and offered tobacco. The burning sweetgrass bundle passed, hand to hand, bathing us in smoke. Water, splashed over a shallow pit of glowing rocks, rose to steam, a burst of breath searing against our chests. Our mouths hung ajar, thirsty for truth. The sweat invited the skin, the entire body, to speak. Expatriating the sweat left a lighter spirit behind. Four rounds, four directions, four races, and after the cleansing and eating, cleared bodies soared in dance.
essay excerpt ©1998paulodacosta
Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey
The Architecture of a Multicultural Identity
208 pages, Boavista Press; (2015)
ISBN-10: 0996051139 ISBN-13: 978-0996051132