I discovered some days ago that my passport wasn’t where I was certain I’d put it. I had just moved one and-a-half miles, crossing the border between Hull, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario. I needed that passport to transfer my life (car registration, driver’s licence, and other various bits of ID) to my new-old place of residence. No ticket, no laundry. Thus begins what is for me a too-familiar recurring scene, in which yours truly is cast into the leading role of the identification theatre’s latest production.
I desperately didn’t want the role. I emptied every box, drawer, and piece of furniture. I deconstructed two storage rooms, one in the building where I live, and one across town. When you go looking for something you must have, eventually if you don’t find it there’s a threshold of irrationality at which you arrive. You find yourself thinking your car keys just may be in the fridge, or perhaps inside the toaster. Could I have left them behind the toilet, or on top of the car engine? A part of your brain half-remembers doing so, and the rest of the brain goes along obligingly because there’s no more credible alternative. “By all means, take the photos off the wall,” says Rational Brain. “What else is there to do?” Having exhausted the improbable, I accepted my fate and made an appointment at the Embassy.
The Embassy? Well, yes: I lived in Quebec and I moved to Ontario, but I was born in New York state. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation website informed me that my U.S. birth certificate was also acceptable identification for a driver’s licence application, but when I presented this document to the receptionist a look of confusion overtook her face and she hastened to the phone. Within two minutes there was a group of three uniformed Service Centre employees discussing my papers. This is the recurring scene to which I earlier referred. It’s played out in airports, at border crossings, and in offices. It can go on for hours. Sometimes it brings me to small windowless rooms of interrogation. Often the scene features a burly humourless man with a gun and an authority complex. Today it is a receptionist who informs me, after an hour’s wait, that I have a “Certified Transcript of Birth” and that what I need is my actual birth certificate (whatever that means) — which requires that I go back to Buffalo. Never mind that the Buffalo City Hall had given me this document, and that in 2005 I’d used it to get my United States passport. Now I no longer had that passport, which meant (among other things) that I couldn’t go back to Buffalo. I was screwed.
Government officials always present me with a box drawn on a piece of paper, demanding that I fit myself into it. The loss of my passport provides a perfect illustration of what I mean. The box requires proof that I’m American and that I have permission of the state to live and work in Canada. I can’t meet this requirement. In December 1965, my parents got into a car in Fort Erie and drove over the Niagara River to Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New York. A few days after my birth, they drove home. Despite the fact that I grew up in Canada and have never lived anywhere else, I have no proof that I was admitted here or that I was given permission to stay. As a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) person, and thus an adherent to the Jay Treaty, that border isn’t even supposed to apply to me. But the humourless, burly U.S. Customs and Border factotum (and his Canada Border Services Agency counterpart) often sees the issue differently. He has the box and the gun, and it’s my job to account for myself in the way that meets his approval.
The facts of my life are clear and plain enough, but forty-five years later they yield bureaucratic farce and hair-pulling consternation. It was bad enough fifteen years ago, but then September 11, 2001 arrived. Not only did life get worse, but conditions guaranteeing more badness with each passing year were established. And so, for instance, the Certified Transcript of Birth that would have got me my Ontario driver’s licence in 2005 now won’t, because a politician decided to make life a bit more difficult. Applying for the same document twice with a five-year interval between, I notice that the second time there’s more security, there are more questions, and more documentation and paperwork. Like wet clothing on a cold day, the depressing thought clings to me: next time it’s going to be even worse — not just for me, but for you too, comrade.
I don’t consider myself American. Sure, I was born in the United States, but I had nothing to do with that. When I lived in Quebec I wasn’t Québecois either (I’m not even going to begin peeling the bizarre onion that is Quebec language and identity politics. That’s a whole other essay). These are mere accidents of geography. The Embassy factotum looks at me condescendingly when I tell her I have no landing papers from Canada. For christ’s sake, when I “immigrated” I was three days old. No, I have no work permit or other such document. Eventually, after I’ve filled out more paperwork — among them an application for a Social Security Number, which I’ve managed to go forty-five years without — she grants the passport, but as is always the case the encounter seems to me absurd. In the view of the US and Canadian Governments I am an American, a landed immigrant, a Canadian, a status Indian. Considered objectively, this is a string of contradictions. An indigenous US immigrant to Canada? That’s like being a pregnant male virgin. I just want to check the box that says “I am Haudenosaunee and my family has been here forever, minding their own business.” But that box is never on any of their forms.