Split Identities

by Abraham Moussako

Despite differences in healthcare, politics, and even serving sizes, Canada and the United States have a lot in common. They share a continent, many aspects of culture, and — thanks to strong flows of product and people — citizens. As a Canadian university that attracts a large influx of American students every year, McGill has a substantial population of American-Canadian dual citizens, numbering 1,059 undergraduate and graduate students according to McGill's enrolment services. These students' experiences provide a useful lens for examining how these countries contribute to each other's identities.

Both Canada and the U.S. have provisions allowing for dual citizenship with the other. In addition to being born into citizenship, those with U.S. parents can also obtain an American passport if born abroad. Canada has similar provisions, where citizenship is granted to the child if at least one parent is a citizen. Under tuition regulations, Canadian citizens who have never lived anywhere in Canada for more than three months before coming to McGill qualify as Quebec residents and as such pay the in-province tuition rates.

By definition, dual citizens find themselves between identities, picking and choosing between many options of how to express and conceptualize themselves. For some, it means identifying with their immediate surroundings. Mwanza Tshimbalanga, a U3 Arts student who lived in northern California before moving to Vancouver during her adolescence, says her self-identity is highly contextual.

"When I'm in Canada, I feel more Canadian," Tshimbalanga said. "[Being] in Canada means that I'm immersed in all the things that make me Canadian, while all those things don't exist in the States, so I feel more American when I'm there. I connect to where I am."

For others, their dual citizenship leads to the paradoxical tendency of identifying with aspects of the U.S. or Canada when they are out of that broader environment. Justin Kieran, a U3 Management student who has Canadian citizenship from his father but spent his childhood in the Boston area, expressed as much.

"When I'm studying at McGill, I become more patriotic towards America, and I defend Canada more when I'm down in the States," Kieran said.

Kane McGee, a U1 Science student who split his childhood between New Jersey, Calgary, and Florida, echoed that sentiment.

“ I connect to where I am. ”

"When I'm in the States, I identify more with the Canadian side, and when I'm here vice-versa," she said. "America is super patriotic, so having another loud patriotic person in America doesn't make the same statement as it does in Canada."

These questions of identity often extend past shaping an individual's sense of self. While McGill's dual citizens tend to define their identity through appreciating the differences between the two countries, many noted that both American and Canadian citizens often feel the need to make the distinction clear.

"It's a relationship of very subtle cultural differences that get blown out of proportion, and that each country's citizens use to validate themselves," said Kieran.

Some dual citizens observed that the emphasis on the differences between the U.S. and Canada is particularly prevalent amongst Canadians. Jessie Lawrence, a U3 Arts student who has Canadian citizenship through her father but grew up in New York, said the identity discussion in Canada often leads to criticism of the United States. Those who grew up mostly in Canada share this sentiment.

"A lot of Canadians, myself included, can only identify to the extent that we're not Americans," said James Hutchingame, a U3 Arts student who spent his childhood between Ottawa and Vancouver but has U.S. citizenship from his father.

He argued that Canadian identity is inextricably linked to the U.S., noting spelling as one such area of distinction.

"It's certainly frustrating if I'm on an 'American' computer and Microsoft Word is spelling my Canadian words wrong," Hutchingame said.

The Canadian tendency to draw its differences from America in sharp relief has its consequences, however. Alex Langer, a U3 Arts student, noted that while Canadians define themselves in opposition to the States, the U.S. tends to draw its identity solely from within. Having spent time in both countries, he noted that Americans find it challenging to understand why Canadians feel the need to draw this distinction — one that sometimes develops into hostility.

"Americans are weirded out by the fact that we're different, and kind of get irrationally mad," Langer said.

In contrast, others argue that Canada's need to distinguish itself is beneficial, leading to a stronger sense of national identity than that of the U.S.

"Canada is a lot more centred, culturally," McGee said. "I think there's a greater Canadian identity than American identity. [When I'm in the States], I often identify myself more with fellow Floridians, or people from the South, than with America overall. Meanwhile in Canada, I feel [...] as if there's just more acceptance, or agreement on what it is to be Canadian than what it is to be American."

This touches upon the idea that despite the real differences between Canada and America, the sheer vastness of both countries means that regional distinctions play as big a role as national distinctions do.

Langer, for example, commented on how his politics and worldview would have been different if he had grown up in the U.S., particularly because his experience in the States derived from St. Louis, a city of stark — and now internationally infamous — racial divides.

"Had I grown up in St. Louis and gone to schools that were all white [or] mostly white [...] I would have had very different experiences on race than growing up in Toronto and going to diverse schools," he said.

Lawrence also attributed her major influences to identity as being more local than national.

"I think that growing up in New York City has really shaped me," she said. "I don't think that being American has shaped me that much as opposed to being Canadian; I think it's more local than that."

This emphasis on the local as well as the national also plays a hand in shaping where some dual citizen students hope to live post-graduation. While many express a clear inclination to go back to their home before McGill, they also emphasized several specific cities in both countries where they felt they would fit in. Hutchingame, for example, had a strong preference to be in Canada, but was willing to move to the U.S.

"If I had a job offer in Montreal, I would stay here," he said. "If I ever were to work in the States, it would have to be in the Northeast or in some kind of international city based on my own interests. I would want to be in San Francisco or Seattle, as those are also the last places my dad lived," he said.

Langer also was very open to living in the U.S. again, despite his positive views of growing up in Canada. "[The U.S. is] not foreign to me," he said. "It's not scary to me in the way that moving to France or moving to China would be. It holds a special place [for me. Toronto] is the city I consider home, but would I consider spending 20 years [in the States]? Given the right opportunity, yes."

What does it mean to be a dual citizen, specifically one of Canadian and American citizenship? The dual identities, jostling for one's loyalty, have come to shape and define many students' adulthoods. Despite the very real differences between Canada and the U.S. — evident at the local and national level — many of these dual citizens have found a home in both countries.

"Canada is culturally quite similar to America," Langer said. "But it's a different country and society. [The two are] both more similar and more different than [people] think."

McGill Tribune / Features