I WAS more than a bit surprised last week at the reaction to Home Secretary David Blunkett's suggestion that immigrants to Britain should take an oath of allegiance and pledge their loyalty to Britain.

The recommendation came in the Cantle Report, commissioned by Blunkett to investigate the causes of last summer's race riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford. The report has other recommendations, which it hopes will pave the way to healing Britain's fractured communities. It calls for open and honest dialogue, and also questions the role single faith schools play in racially-divided communities.

But it was the reaction by some people to the idea of a pledge of allegiance that struck me as extreme. Very right wing, said some. Racist, muttered others. It made me stop in my tracks and think back to my own early experiences as an immigrant in Canada in the late 1970s.

Not long after moving, I began studying journalism at a college in Ontario. I can still recall the day that I decided to become Canadian and learn all I could about Canada. A classmate announced it was Grey Cup weekend and that he was having a party. "What's the Grey Cup?" I piped up, unaware that this was Canada's equivalent to the FA Cup final. But instead of making fun, my classmates were only too keen to explain their country's traditions. And so the process of becoming Canadian began.

The process involved being open to new ideas, studying and working with people from vastly different backgrounds, enjoying ice hockey, Canada Day and Thanksgiving. It also required commitment on my part - a commitment to study the history and geography of Canada and accept and understand its multicultural traditions. My behaviour wasn't exceptional - it was required by all immigrants wanting to become citizens, and Canadian school children too.

The big day came about three years later, after I had graduated and moved another 2,000 miles west to my first job in Alberta. On November 2, 1982, I put on a smart suit and drove to a tiny court house in Wetaskiwin, a few miles from Edmonton, for one of the most exciting days of my life. After a test, and an interview with a judge, I was able to take the pledge of allegiance to Canada and the Queen with more than 200 other immigrants. I was now a Canadian.

But I knew in my heart that the pledge of allegiance was symbolic. It represents the best of Canada and the two key things that country stands for: a country with a great sense of pride in its achievements and its communities; and a country that welcomes people from around the world and encourages them to study, to work, to do their best and help build a better country.

Doesn't Britain embrace the same values? Yes. But, in my view, too often that embrace is in theory and not in practice. Sure, we put forward our ideas about what Britain is and stands for, what it is to be a good citizen, and how most of us want to welcome immigrants. But we repeatedly fail to teach people about the responsibilities of citizenship and pride in community.

This is where Canada excels. I defy anyone, even in downtown Toronto or Montreal, two of Canada's largest cities, to find gum plastered on pavements or graffiti defacing buildings and monuments. This isn't to say that Canadians are saints - they have their problems like most people. But they love their towns and cities, from the tiny hamlet on the prairies to a cosmopolitan centre on the Great Lakes. Mindless vandalism is almost unheard of, and tossing litter out of a car window would cause public outrage.

But what about the more complex problems? The Cantle report noted that many of the immigrants in riot-torn communities had failed to embrace Britain as their new home. Meanwhile, some members of the white community fostered hatred and refused to accept that they live in a multi-cultural community. Deprivation and an inability to speak English also played a part in making things even more tense in poorer neighbourhoods.

Like every country, Canada has had these problems too. Racist incidents flare up and then pass. Some people in deprived communities turn to prostitution and drug-trafficking. In Alberta, there has been a number of particularly nasty episodes of anti-Semitism which left almost every citizen hanging his or her head in shame.

Yet still, despite the fact that Canada is made up of people from every part of the globe representing every faith, the majority of Canadians are not filled with a sense of superiority or hatred. When things turn ugly, they do not want to blame, riot and destroy. Instead, they seek understanding, compromise, and reconciliation.

Another important factor is the degree to which Canadians embrace democracy. Grassroots democracy is very much alive and well in Canada. Local councils have real power, with elected mayors who can make real and important decisions on behalf of their citizens. A big part of this process is the input of community groups. These groups, which include immigrant organisations, are regularly invited to meet with councils and air problems and discuss possible solutions, so that a minor conflict does not become a community crisis.

Britain helped shape Canada many years ago. Perhaps now it is time to look west and see what we can learn from a country which has an enviable ability to integrate immigrants while encouraging them to keep their cultural identity. Solving racial tensions in our communities will take much more than a pledge of allegiance - but that's a good place to start.

l What do you think? Write to Hear Alll Sides at The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF