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Lineups at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo by iStock.com/yelo34

Spirit Story

O Canada!

By Thérèse Samuel

Arriving home after a week’s vacation this past February, I joined the queue to clear Canadian customs and immigration at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Among the hundreds of travellers in the winding line were people of all ages and hues.

As a woman of colour, a member of the LGBTQ community, a Christian and the holder of a Canadian passport, I am increasingly aware of the intersections of oppression and privilege that define my place at home in Canada and abroad.

Glancing at the people around me, I let my eyes linger on a woman and her male travelling companion. They were brown-skinned like me, but the woman was wearing a hijab. For a moment, I inwardly lamented the growing difficulty our Muslim sisters and brothers face when travelling abroad. As the queue inched forward, the woman and I ended up beside each other, separated by a rope.

Suddenly, a voice rising above the hum of conversation cut through my consciousness.

“Your bag is scaring me.” A man with light skin and curly auburn hair pointed at the couple’s wheeled carry-on case.

“I’m not trying to scare you,” the Muslim man responded calmly as his partner said nothing and looked away.

But the harassment continued — with increasing volume and intensity. My heart pounded with the uncertainty of what might happen in such a crowd. I looked across the room toward the immigration officials. They were surely monitoring the disturbance but made no move to intervene.

The man was still berating the couple when another man in line called out, “Hey! We’re in Canada now. We don’t do that kind of thing here.” The first man stopped yelling.

Then, the second man began to sing very loudly and a little off pitch, “O Canada, our home and native land . . .” A few others joined in, and I was sure I felt the presence of a power greater than all of us. After several bars, the voices trailed off, and there was silence.

Blessed silence. The harassment had melted away. The line proceeded in relative peace.

My experience of our national anthem and the “Canadian ideal” shifted that day. I am wary of national symbols, which are frequently used as instruments of division. I am conscious of the many ways in which Canada was founded on colonial injustice. The Canadian ideal has too often been misguided and misused; nevertheless, it can still point us in the direction of a higher good.

For a few precious moments, the man who intervened to defend the couple demonstrated that higher good. And yet there was a certain irony to his statement. He said, “We don’t do that kind of thing here.” But we were in Canada, and this was happening. 

Our idealistic image of Canada is so easily shattered. But that day in the airport line, the national anthem drew diverse people together and reminded us of the peace that we wish to create. And for that moment, in that place, the ideal became reality.

Rev. Thérèse Samuel is a minister at Grace United in Thornbury, Ont.

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