Friday, January 13, 2017

History of immigration and identity

I came across "Once An Immigrant," a charming and kind of incoherent documentary about Canadian identity by the actor Peter Keleghan (also charming), on the Ceeb last night. (You can watch it here.) Keleghan's parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. His father turns out to be Stanislaus Krakus, an immigrant from Poland, a Canadian citizen for half a century or so, and convinced this is the best country in the world. Canada is far better than anywhere in Europe, he says, although he's not without some of the scars of spending much of his life as a disdained minority. He's thoughtful, but he's tough too.

In the film, Peter Keleghan takes most of his cues from his mother (at 93, she's even more charming!). She's the Keleghan of the family; son Peter took her name in place of his and his father's when he began an acting career. She (and most of her siblings) left Ireland  in the 1950s, but she still identifies as Irish, still holds an Irish passport, calls Ireland "home." She seems to have had a good life in Canada, but implies she would be gone in a shot if she could get her children to go "home" with her.

Keleghan mostly buys into this as normal and appropriate. In the film he travels with her to Ireland and dutifully pays homage to most of the Irish myths. Back home he organizes and films a backyard lunch with a big crew of actor friends, all immigrants or first generation (Raul Bhaneja, Elvira Kurt, Grace Kung, Ted Dykstra...) and urges them to acknowledge their "home" ties against their Canadian ones.

I was rather glad to see that several of them resisted  On the whole, I found myself irritated by his mother's position -- to the extent one can be irritated by a charming nonagenarian being happily reunited with family. Where does she get off playing the tourist here in the country where her family has done so well, pretending her real home was elsewhere?

I was even ambivalent about her stated reason for refusing Canadian identity and citizenship.  Being Irish and bathed in Irish national mythology, she won't swear allegiance to the Queen of England. She says she'd become a Canadian in a heartbeat if we would only take the Queen off the money.  Well, I can see some force in that critique of Canada's failure to assert its own nationality forcefully enough. But given the disgusting way the Irish have so often treated each other in the past century, I do find this holding a grudge against the English begins to seem a bit old.

I don't think my own immigrant family was ever this conflicted:  all Canadian citizens the moment we were eligible, never had a thought of living elsewhere or identifying as anything but Canadian, I would say. But then we had the privilege of identifying as being of British origin (chosing that more than Irish or Scottish, though we had those options), and probably faced a lot less of those outsider issues that someone Polish or Irish or Jewish or Chinese did. Hmmmm.

Funny documentary moment:  Keleghan, pondering the immigrant identity, muses on how, having inherited all those immigrant insecurities, he naturally grew up desperate for security and prosperity.  "So you became an actor?" his friends all shout at once.

(As I finish this, I find that "immigration," "identity" and "nationality" are all labels I have never previously used to tag entries in this blog.  Hmmm to that too.)

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