I found a letter Sen. Serge Joyal wrote to me in the early ’80s when he was the secretary of state for Canada. It was in a file of important papers that my mom had safeguarded for me. Included in that file is my original Kenya birth certificate and Joyal’s letter, written in the early stages of his career, congratulating me on my Canadian citizenship.
“This is an important day for you and for Canada,” he stated. And in the next paragraph, “Of all the nations of the world, you have chosen Canada as your new home. In making this choice, you have honoured your fellow citizens. At the same time, Canada is enriched by the energies, talents and cultural traditions you bring to this society.”
When I received this letter, I was not yet school-age. I have no recollection of the day we officially became Canadian citizens but as of the time this letter resurfaced, I have had four decades of experience being one. And I have to say that reading that paragraph above made my eyes teary. It has begged me to ask myself what I have done to enrich my country. How have I used my talents and energy and my perspective to contribute meaningfully to the society in which I live? How have I honoured my fellow citizens?
Just days after I read this letter, a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was shot down shortly after take-off in Iran, killing all 176 on board. Of those, 138 passengers had listed Canada as their final destination; from what I understand, 57 of them were Canadian citizens. They were families, professionals, faculty, students. They were people with brilliant minds and compassionate hearts. And over the days that followed, as I read about the contributions these stolen lives had made to our country, my own heart broke.
I wonder what their letters said, the ones welcoming them to Canada. I wonder if those words inspired them. I wonder what more they could have offered to our nation, to the world, had they more time. I wonder how they felt holding their student visas, how their families may have celebrated this great honour and hope.
In the wake of this tragedy, I feel like we are left with so many questions – from the logistics of how this happened to the gut-wrenching, unanswerable, ‘why?’ I’d like to add one more question in the hope of honouring the men, women and children who are now gone: what do we offer in their memory?
Perhaps we can offer what they gave our country in their short time: the best of us. Let’s be moved to share the best of our energy and talents in service of our communities. Those can be the tools that build bridges among us. Let it be that while we grieve as a nation we also learn that we can lean on each other in these hard times.
My deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones and to the friends in mourning.
Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.