Jully Black’s move to Canada’s anthem shows how true reconciliation works

Jully Black performs with O Canada at the NBA All-Star Game on February 19 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images - photo credit)

Jully Black performs with O Canada at the NBA All-Star Game on February 19 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images – photo credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed who writes opinions for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC Opinion SectionPlease take a look… FAQ.

The first song I learned was the Canadian national anthem and it was the first song I ever sang in public. (I’ll admit I have a terrible singing voice.) I heard it every day at school for over a decade—in both French and English.

I was taught to be proud of the national anthem. Calixa Lavallée wrote the music in 1880 to a poem by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. It was officially adopted when the National Anthem Act was passed in 1980.

The lyrics were changed in 2018 to be gender neutral. Previously, there was a disastrous and unofficial attempt to change former tenor member Remigio Pereira’s lyrics at the 2016 MLB All-Star Game.

Pereira changed the lyrics to reflect an All Lives Matter mood. This spectacular failure led to his expulsion from the group. I didn’t see the incident live but read about what happened. I remember being amazed that he revised the anthem. The boldness!

Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

Throughout my youth I felt an overwhelming sense of pride when the anthem was played at the Olympics while the Canadian flag was being raised. There were moments that brought tears to my eyes as I watched the athletes sing out loud as they stood on the podium. I knew the lyrics, but had I really paid attention?

That changed drastically for me as an adult as I learned more about the indigenous history of this land. Coming from an immigration experience, I am so aware of the privileges I have of having a Canadian passport, access to universal healthcare and all the freedoms we enjoy. In places I’ve visited and have close ties to, that’s not the case for women like me.

As a result, I am aware of the history I was not taught and the history that Canada has yet to address in a meaningful way.

I think that’s a tremendous strength for our country; to recognize our untutored history in order to truly reconcile ourselves with the past. Sharing educational programs, hearing important stories in books, podcasts and art about indigenous culture is valuable. Campaigns to recognize ongoing injustices against indigenous communities are so important and affect us through sport. The Arctic Games and North American Indigenous Games are just two of many examples of how different sports platforms can weave information about indigenousness.

Over the weekend, the NBA All-Star Game boasted the best players and most prominent artists from sports and entertainment. Aside from the Canadian talent that was on the pitch, there was an impressive performance from Canadian singer/songwriter Jully Black.

My family was gathered around the dining table and we all paused to listen to her sing the Canadian anthem. My husband Mark welcomed them with excitement – they worked together and are friends. Her voice was clear and confident, but my heart almost stopped after the first two lines. Black had changed the text. It took me a moment to remember that. My husband was cheering before I even processed what had just happened.

Black changed a word; instead of “our homeland and homeland” she sang “our homeland in the homeland”.

She paused before singing “on” and I could feel it. We should feel it and let it resonate.

As someone who works with words every day, I played that moment over and over in my head. Words can have so much power. It only took a few minutes for it to spread like wildfire across Twitter and Instagram.

I’m not sure the usual NBA All-Star weekend crowd understood the power of this moment, but it’s also a powerful part of this story. Educating those who might not know, Black offered a compelling piece of history long excluded from mainstream media and education in Canada, similar to Native American history in the United States

Black emphasized the reality that Canada was built on stolen and occupied Indigenous land, and we continue to ignore that fact when making land recognitions but not changing the systems that affect Indigenous communities.

When asked about Black’s word change, CityNews in Vancouver reported that xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Chief Wayne Sparrow agreed.

“It put a smile on my face,” Sparrow said. “Being recognized in this way does a lot for reconciliation. I think issues like this go a lot further than people realize.” Sparrow said he’d also like to see lasting change.

According to Eva Jewell, director of research at the Yellowhead Institute, Native Americans have been saying this lineage for decades. What Black sang isn’t new, but it’s been confirmed to people around the world. “I sang the facts,” she said.

In preparing for this important performance, Black said she studied and dissected the lyrics. She changed ownership of the land and that’s important. Land back is a key issue in indigenous justice.

Of course, not everyone was thrilled. Commentator Jordan Peterson was outraged, as were many right-wing supporters. But despite screams from random Twitter accounts and Indigenous Genocide deniers, it sparked discussion about whether change was imminent.

Black’s powerful performance showed us that intention and understanding go a long way in teaching and correcting when the words may not be the right ones. I certainly didn’t expect this moment of impact and beautiful change to come from Center Court in Salt Lake City, Utah at the NBA All-Star Game, but Jully Black got us there.

And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back.


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