On an April evening in 2014, I opened an email and panicked. It was from a Model United Nations (Model UN) conference I was supposed to attend. The conference was in five days, and I had just been told that I would be part of a special committee – the House of Commons – and that I would act as the leader of the Green Party. Little did I know that this one email would mark the beginning of a valuable engagement with the human side of politics.
Coincidentally, I was a high school student in Saanich, B.C. at the time. As such, I was especially aware of Elizabeth May. I knew that she was my Member of Parliament (MP), and that her job was to represent the people in her constituency. While preparing for the conference, I realized that my ideas were only based on guesses of what May might do, and those ideas seemed vague, unconvincing, and somewhat immature. I wanted to be an outstanding Green, even though it was just a mock House of Commons.
I tweeted at May the next day, and she responded within hours. I probably asked a few too many questions over the next two days as eventually she asked, politely, whether we could correspond by email. So I sent her an email at 6 p.m., and she responded at 11 p.m., which was 2 a.m. in Ottawa, with an email twice as long as mine. I asked the question, “How often, and when, do you compromise in the House?” She responded, “I DON’T.” With this strict principle as my guidance, I did very well in the Model UN – I wrote a great paper on the assigned topic and delivered speeches that got right to the heart of the problems in the mock House. I was surprised and grateful that Elizabeth May had stayed up late for me, an unknown high-schooler, and answered my questions.
As a thank you, I gave her a copy of my paper at the next town hall meeting she hosted, and thought I would never meet her again. But she had left a strong impression, and I was motivated to do further research into the issues I had tackled in the mock House. I realized that I found the Greens to be a very inspiring party, and that, although her party did not hold many seats in Parliament, May was a significant political figure. I also watched a number of her speeches. Although I often drifted off in the middle (as any English learner would), I still felt the power, determination, and passion with which she approached each issue at hand. What she had told me before was true: she never compromises. Until then, I had always been an acquiescent follower. I could remain silent when confronted, and apologize for something that was not my fault. After watching her speeches and reading all sorts of articles about May and the Greens, I decided that I too would no longer tolerate people dictating the circumstances of others’ lives only to further their own interests, especially those who have the most power.
Canada’s immigration system, for one, imposes heavy constraint on immigrants’ lives – all with a purpose that remains unclear to me. My own family was at the time split across three timezones: myself studying in Victoria, my father in China, and my mother in Toronto, working as a nanny. Extremely underpaid, she was trying her best to ensure that within two years, she would be able to fill out a permanent residency application for our whole family. She began working last June, just before the federal government passed Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act. The bill narrowed the definition of a “dependent child,” and now full-time students aged 19 and over, instead of 21 and over, are not allowed to apply for permanent residency along with their parents. In just less than a year, as my mother finishes her two-year contract, I will turn 19. Determined that these three years of separation wouldn’t be for nothing, my mother volunteered to be paid less in order to log more hours, with the hope of accruing the 3,900 hours of work required to file the application one month earlier.
Bill C-24 also makes it harder for students who have graduated from Canadian institutions to obtain Canadian citizenship, and mandates language proficiency tests for those aged 14 and up. Recently, an amendment made Canadians born outside of Canada susceptible to the revocation of their citizenship.
[I] would no longer tolerate people dictating the circumstances of others’ lives only to further their own interests, especially those who have the most power.
I kept in touch with Elizabeth for a year after our initial encounter. I found out that she would soon be organizing a youth town hall meeting at my high school – I was excited to join her, along with a dozen other students and a few staff members, for a luncheon. The conversation at the event was in-depth, and I feel that I have to apologize here to others who were in attendance who had their own questions, as I talked about immigration issues for so long. When I asked what role the government wanted foreign students, workers, and landed immigrants to play in Canada, I was expecting a clear, definitive answer. However, the fact that Elizabeth May, a competent and honest MP, was not able to provide such an answer was scary. Perhaps I would need to interrogate the prime minister myself one day to understand the motivations behind Canada’s immigration system.
In contrast to many of the realities that my family faces, a lot of government immigration materials I have read talk about how much Canada welcomes, even needs, newcomers. At the youth town hall, I expressed concerns about getting mixed signals regarding the government’s attitude towards foreign students and workers. In the end, Elizabeth promised to help my family with our struggle.
I felt like the luckiest, most privileged girl on earth. I was well aware that my family was in the so-called ‘normal’ immigration system, just with bad timing. We were not stuck in a refugee camp unable to access the outside world, we were not being deported unreasonably, nor were we homeless. We were only waiting, and I was the only one who would be affected if things went wrong. I’m young, and I can always try again. I didn’t feel like I deserved attention or sympathy. There were so many people worse off than me.
At the same time, I was neither a citizen, nor a permanent resident. I was an international student, able (albeit barely) to pay her through-the-roof tuition, and I did not feel entitled to Elizabeth’s help. I remember my face burning. “I’m not a Canadian yet,” I said. I stared down at the sour cream left over on my plate to hide my disappointment. I could feel that everyone in the room was staring at me, or trying not to stare. The person beside me, another Chinese girl, froze.
Elizabeth’s next sentence almost threw me out of my chair. “You’re in my constituency. I’m responsible for helping you,” she said.
“Even if I’m international?”
“Even if you’re international. I’m your MP. It’s my responsibility to take care of everyone who lives in my riding.”
Later that day, I wrote an email to her riding office, explaining in detail my family’s situation, my concerns, and what I thought should be done. There was no response for weeks. Then, one day, I got an email asking me when I would like to visit my mother in Toronto. The trip would be paid for with Elizabeth’s travel reward points. After several emails and phone calls, we had booked a one-way ticket to Toronto for that summer. I was moving, and I would have no more official connection with Elizabeth.
Summer came. A surprise family reunion in B.C. made me laugh and cry at the same time. It had been two years since both of my parents and I had been together. I wanted to share my joy with Elizabeth, yet she was nowhere to be found. We went to the riding office for the first and maybe last time, to say thank you. The next day, on the plane to Toronto, I secretly wished for another MP who would say “you’re in my constituency, I’m responsible for helping you” to an unknown international student.
Xiaoxiao (Alice) Liu is a U0 Science student. To contact her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.