This summer, I worked with a group of teenage ESL students. I remember the first time I taught them our national anthem.
Everyone was ok with what we were doing, except one young woman. I’ll call her Emma.
After we sang “O Canada,” I had the students work through an anthem-related activity. Once we were done, I couldn’t help but notice that Emma looked downright uncomfortable. While her classmates did other tasks, I took the empty seat beside her. We had a quiet conversation.
Emma was adamant. “An anthem is like a vow…” Technically, I knew she was right. However deep down, a part of me was stunned. Emma went on: she wasn’t from Canada, and didn’t want to disrespect her own country.
I dropped the issue. Days later, though, I had students do an activity that brought our anthem to mind. Once again, Emma was uncomfortable. And I was confused. Her reaction was unlike any that I’d encountered before. As far as I was concerned, Emma didn’t have to take the anthem as anything beyond what it appeared to be: A song.
One day after class, I approached my TA. I told him about Emma. His response?
He wasn’t going to stand in the way of anyone who didn’t want to sing “O Canada”.
Did I mention that my TA was Indigenous?
Instantly, I empathized. In the wake of his reply, it’s almost hilarious how quickly my attitude changed.
Looking back I can’t help but be intrigued. Two different perspectives can reveal so much about the meaning of a piece of music.
For one person, an anthem is a promise–when you sing it, you are declaring your devotion to a country. If you sing the anthem of a country that isn’t yours, you are being disrespectful.
For the other, an anthem can be a symbol of oppression. The first time I was present when a Native student didn’t stand for “O Canada”, I was curious. But I didn’t feel offended.
On one hand, I’m proud to be Canadian. Yet I’m not so proud that I don’t see my nation’s flaws. I understand why our past and present moves some of us to take a stand. Negative reactions to NFL players’ peaceful activism have been very telling.
Why should people be expected to entertain others at the expense of their humanity?
Yes, a national anthem is a song. But it’s more than that. It IS a vow–an expression of devotion and pride. And yet, to those who face injustice, its notes might not sound so sweet.
No one should feel obligated to be comfortable with a system that doesn’t value them. If you have strength and courage enough to protest against injustice, I salute you.