When I started kindergarten at age six, I didn’t know the words to O Canada. Every morning the entire school would assemble in the cramped hallway of the four-classroom school, arranged according to grade, and Mrs. Macdonald would play an introduction on the old piano that was tucked just inside the door of the nearest room. Then we’d start to sing, hands rigid at our sides. The national anthem was followed by announcements, at which point we were sent back to our classrooms. This routine happened every single day, even when trips or track meets were planned; O Canada came first, setting the tone for the day, then we could get on with things.
At first, this entire ordeal was overwhelming but, as most young children do, I absorbed the lyrics and music of O Canada simply by hearing it so often. Within weeks, I was singing it with confidence and volume. The anthem, as sacrilegious as this may sound, actually became a game for me. Every day, I tried to make it more on tune and say more of the words flawlessly, without a single slip. On particularly silly days, I’d try to minimize the number of breaths it took to get through the entire song (always hiding this from the teachers, of course). In grade four, we learned the anthem in French and proudly sang it without understanding a word, though my favourite part was that great, popping-sounding word “épopée.”
I left the public school system for several years and eventually returned for my final year of high school. Much to my surprise, the students simply stood up each morning as a poor-quality version of O Canada was piped through the PA system. No one sang a word. No one hummed. The room was silent, except for the fidgeting that occurred while impatient teenagers waited for the song to be over. I quickly realized that O Canada was viewed as a nuisance, preventing students from getting on with their day.
So it was with great interest that I came across an article last night called “O Canada in Schools: Students Pushed to Sing O Canada by Themselves.” My immediate reaction? Oh, poor things, being pushed to sing the national anthem by themselves! (Please add sarcastic tone, if you haven’t already.) Apparently a Toronto school board trustee is pushing for kids to have to sing aloud and without accompaniment, in an attempt to make them more patriotic. This is causing quite a bit of controversy, because apparently students are shy about singing in public.
I am all in favour of this. First, some background info for you American readers out there: Canadians are not particularly patriotic, from my experience. Sure, we’re proud to be Canadian, but we also do way too much self-flagellation most of the time.
Second, an attitude of patriotism is something that must be taught; one is not born that way. By allowing kids to stand by passively as they listen to a recording of their anthem – which, I might add, is not conducive to memorizing lyrics one bit – we’re essentially telling them that it doesn’t matter whether they know it or not. Does it?
That’s my third point. The anthem, albeit just a song, is a unifying force that can get an entire crowd on the same wavelength, that can stop conversations instantaneously, that can create a burning sense of pride in the hearts of the most apathetic bystander.
Fourth, I don’t believe that kids are naturally shy about singing so much as they’re self-conscious about doing it when nobody else does. Toddlers and pre-schoolers sing all the time. It’s when they start school and realize that singing isn’t cool that the urge to do so is squashed. Kids have a strong pack mentality, and if educators can teach them that the anthem is an awesome way to show pride in one’s country, I’m sure they’ll be singing their hearts out in the hallways and playgrounds.
There’s a reason national anthems exist – to be sung! And that must be enforced, whether in school or at home. If not, then what’s the point of even having one?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How did you learn the anthem? Do you think it should be ‘forced’ on students in schools?