Jully Black's change to Canada's anthem is how true reconciliation works

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

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

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

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

The lyrics were changed to be gender neutral in 2018. Previously there had been a disastrous and unofficial attempt to change the lyrics by former Tenors member Remigio Pereira at the MLB All-Star Game in 2016.

Pereira changed the lyrics to reflect an All Lives Matter sentiment. That spectacular failure led to him being ejected from the group. I did not see the incident live, but read about what had happened. I remember feeling astounded that he reworked the anthem. The audacity!

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 as the Canadian flag was flown. There were moments when I definitely teared up watching athletes sing loudly as they stood on the podium. I knew the lyrics but had I really paid attention to them?

That changed drastically for me as an adult when I learned more about Indigenous history in this country. I am from an immigrant experience and am so cognizant of the privileges I have from having a Canadian passport, having access to universal health care, and all the freedoms we enjoy. In places that I have visited and have close connections with, that is 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 this is a tremendous strength for our country; to recognize our untaught history in order to truly reconcile with the past. Sharing education programs, listening to important stories through books, podcasts, and art about Indigenous culture is precious. Campaigns to recognize ongoing injustices against Indigenous communities are so important and affects us through sports. The Arctic Games and North American Indigenous Games are only two of the many examples of how different sports platforms can weave in information about Indigeneity.

Over the weekend, the NBA All-Star game boasted the best players and most prominent artists across sports and entertainment. Aside from the Canadian talent representing on the court, there was a formidable performance from Canadian singer/songwriter Jully Black.

My family was gathered around the dinner table, and we all paused to listen to her sing the Canadian anthem. My husband, Mark, was recording her excitedly — they have worked together and are friends. Her voice rang out clear and confident, but after the first two lines my heart almost stopped. Black had changed the lyric. It took a moment for that to sink in for me. My husband was cheering already before I even processed what had just happened.

Black changed one word; instead of "our home and native land," she sang "our home ON native land."

She paused before singing "on" and I felt that. We were meant to feel it and have it resonate.

As someone who works with words everyday, I kept replaying that moment in my head. Words can wield so much power. It was only a few minutes before it spread like wildfire across Twitter and Instagram.

I'm not sure if the usual NBA All-Star weekend audiences understood the power of that moment, but that's also an impactful piece of this story. Black was teaching those who might not be aware, and offering an imperative piece of history that was long excluded from mainstream media and education in Canada, similar to Native American history in the U.S.

Black emphasized the reality that Canada was built on stolen and occupied Indigenous land, and we continue to ignore that fact if we do land acknowledgements but don't change the systems that affect Indigenous communities.

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

"It got a smile on my face," Sparrow said. "To be recognized like that goes a long way in reconciliation. I think issues like this go a lot farther than people realize." Sparrow said he would also like to see it made a permanent change.

According to Eva Jewell, research director at the Yellowhead Institute, Indigenous people have been saying that line for decades. What Black sang is not new, but it was reaffirmed to people all across the world. "I sang the facts," she said.

In preparing for this important performance, Black said she studied and dissected the lyrics. She changed the possession of the land and that is important. Land Back is an issue central to Indigenous justice.

Of course, not everyone was thrilled about it. Commentator Jordan Peterson was livid as were many right-wing supporters. But despite the screaming from random Twitter accounts and Indigenous genocide deniers, it generated a conversation about whether a change is imminent.

Black's powerful performance showed us that intentionality and understanding go a long way to 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 centre court in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the NBA All-Star game, but Jully Black took us there.

And I'm quite sure that I don't want to go back.