A week ago I voted for the first time as a Latvian citizen. I can’t put into words the satisfying feeling of completing my first official civic duty. I’ve always felt that political participation (even if only by voting) is one of the top tools to use to make an impact on society around you. Now I’ve finally been able to participate in shaping the society around me with the tools available to citizens.
This year, at the ripe age of 25, I voted for the first time in Latvia. Not because other years I’ve been lazy, but because thanks to alterations in the dual citizenship law, this summer I became a citizen of Latvia. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but I’ve finally made it, and have a few thoughts that I’d love to share, as well as address some frequently asked questions. What does Latvian citizenship mean to me? What do I need it for in the first place? What am I going to do with it now?
For those who don’t know, I’m born in Canada, and 8 years ago I came to Latvia to study, and then later, to work. The entire time I wasn’t a citizen of Latvia, so I had to apply for residence permits to stay in the country. The parliamentary vote in October of 2013 to allow dual citizenship allowed me to apply for Latvian citizenship based on my Latvian heritage on my mother’s side.
Knowing that your country wants you
At a time when one of the most relevant topics in Latvia is its demographic status, mass-emigration, I decided to go to Latvia. I’ve always classified myself as a Latvian, spoke Latvian at home with my mother and brother, went to Latvian school on weekends, camps, folk dancing, etc. Therefore it came as a surprise that in different Latvian systems it was incredibly complicated, difficult, and time-consuming to take care of the bureaucratic formalities. At one point it was even suggested that I “voluntarily leave the territory of the Republic of Latvia” (but that’s another story).
The decision to allow dual citizenship was an important moment for me – I found out that the law was accepted while I was at work. I have to admit that I shed a few tears of happiness. I hoped that none of my colleagues would see me in the moment of weakness, though in retrospect I wouldn’t call it weakness. Luckily, this moment stayed between me and the open page of the local new site. But why was it such an important moment? Because my country had finally acknowledged that they want me. And don’t we all want to be loved?
What next? Political activity and paying taxes
I’ve always believed that Latvia is the land of opportunity – not the US, as most people think. If you go to the States, is it possible for anyone to become president? No, you have to be born in US territory. Not to mention if you don’t have the right education, don’t come from the right family, don’t have a massive amount of sponsors, you probably won’t make it very far. Unfortunately it would be a long-shot in Canada, too.
In Latvia everything is accessible. Jobs, businesses, people. You can attain anything, if only you want it enough and work at it (it sounds cheesy, but it’s true). I never thought in a million years that I’d have the honour to draw and design the symbols that would be painted on the Latvian Olympic bobsleigh. But it happened. I’ve also met the past three presidents face-to-face. In Latvia, it’s no big deal. Everything is so accessible. What’s in my future? Right now it’s too soon to say. Definitely with political activity, which had been denied to me because of my lack of citizenship. I’ll take every opportunity to vote. Maybe even later I’d consider being a candidate. I’d also like to start by own business. To take the reins into my own hands and direct my own professional development. Also so that I could create small projects and pay taxes fairly (keep an eye our for these AWESOME t-shirts that I’ll be unveiling soon!). Paying taxes is a pretty important thing to do – if you don’t pay taxes, then you can’t complain about things like the quality of roads, healthcare, pensions, and teacher salaries. We’re a link in the chain, and if the first link is broken, then there can be no hope that the money gets to where it needs to be. Let’s start with our own chain link, and then work on the rest.
I’m not naive enough to believe that Latvia is paradise and that there are no problems here. There are all sorts of challenges, but us citizens have to make it a place that we want it to be. So how about we put a little effort into it? I want this country to be a place where I want to be.
Double standards – I’m still Canadian
I’ve had quite a bit of criticism about wanting citizenship, the argument being, that if I really wanted Latvian citizenship, then I could’ve simply renounced my Canadian citizenship and applied for Latvian citizenship without a problem. I understand that I don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question, but I’m not ready to completely renounce my rights to my country of birth, to cut all ties with the country where my closest family and childhood friends live. I also still don’t know where the rest of my life will be spent, so it seems silly to take such a finite decision, possibly too soon. Is it not enough that I consider myself Latvia, that I live here, and want to participate in the development of society?
This is an extract from Julia Gifford’s blog, published on October 14, 2014. The blog post was also in Latvian.