'O Canada' - Alternative anthems for a national reckoning

'O Canada' - Alternative anthems for a national reckoning
Opinion: Hadani Ditmars reflects on how poetry and verse might help Canadians reconcile the national ideal of a multicultural haven with the reality of apartheid.
6 min read
01 Jul, 2021
The remains of 215 children were discovered earlier this month at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canada [Getty]

As a widely cancelled Canada Day looms in light of recently revealed mass graves of indigenous children at residential schools, and the country of my birth faces a national reckoning, a song runs through my mind.

No, it's not the national anthem, O Canada, a French-Canadian patriotic poem by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier that only officially replaced God Save the Queen in 1980. Rather it's the 50-year-old A Case of You, by our national musical heroine, Joni Mitchell. There's one line that always gets me right in the heart, especially when I'm living abroad. It goes:

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh, Canada
With your face sketched on it twice

The line used to conjure images of my childhood, and always evoked a sense of innocence, longing and, dare I say even patriotism?

But now, those images have been replaced, as I imagine the faces of those long departed native children, languishing in unmarked graves, sketched on Mitchell’s map.

O Canada, how will you face your national reckoning? And how will we ever reconcile the Canadian national ideal of a multicultural haven and the internationally celebrated words of our bards and poets, with the reality of our own apartheid? South African Bantustans, it's worth noting, were inspired by Canada’s Indian reservations.

"O Canada, how will you face your national reckoning?"

While cancelling celebrations of our national day may be a well-intentioned gesture of solidarity, it does seem somewhat disingenuous, as the horrific abuse at residential schools has been documented for years by its survivors.

And of course, Canada is not the only nation to have its national day, or national anthem for that matter, challenged politically. Just as Israeli Independence Day has long been marked by Palestinians as Nakba Day ("the catastrophe") so too, does Canada Day  - known by the overtly colonial moniker, Dominion Day until 1982 - evoke a sense of pain and loss among First Nations communities.

In fact, there are growing links between the Palestinian and First Nations struggles. When I interviewed poet Lee Maracle, granddaughter of Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, during the Idle No More protest movement in 2013 - a kind of First Nations intifada, she said, "The links between peoples are clearer. We're both colonised. They're after our resources in the North," she says, citing the controversial tar sands bitumen extraction projects in Alberta, "and land and resources in the Middle East."

Maracle, one of the first native children allowed to enrol in public school in 1956, remembered meeting Mahmoud Darwish at a public reading in Vancouver in 1976 to welcome the Palestinian delegation attending the UN Habitat conference on human settlement.

There, she read his poetry in English, and he read it in Arabic. Hearing his work, she felt an intrinsic connection. "He spoke to something so old inside my body it felt like floating in a sea of forever," Maracle told me.

Indeed, as demolitions begin in occupied East Jerusalem's Silwan neighbourhood, it's timely to remember that Darwish penned a poem in 1992, "The Penultimate Speech of the 'Red Indian' to the White Man" that began:

You who come from beyond the sea, bent on war,
don’t cut down the tree of our names,
don’t gallop your flaming horses across
the open plains …
Don’t bury your God
in books that back up your claim of
your land over our land...

As cancelled Canada Day approaches, and we reckon with our country's colonial legacy, I find comfort in the words of poets. Why can’t we pen our own anthems, I wonder? After all, most national days and national songs are anachronisms, as dated as the statues being thrown into rivers.

"There are growing links between the Palestinian and First Nations struggles."

And there are already some First Nations alternatives, like this version sung in Cree and Ojibway, or this one by Asani, an aboriginal women's a cappella group from Edmonton, Alberta, re-imagined to reflect the myriad peoples who call Canada their homeland.

Aboriginal activists mourn Australia's National Day as "Invasion Day"; Columbus Day in America has been renamed "Indigenous Peoples' Day" as a foil to the violence and erasure of la Conquista, and Waitangi or Treaty Day has been shunned by right-wing New Zealand groups. I can only imagine how fraught National Days are for Tuaregs and Berbers in North Africa, Kurds and Armenians in Turkey, Uighurs in China, or say Basques and Catalans in Spain.

The philosopher Krishnamurti wrote of the "violence" of nationalism and many Sufis reject the idea entirely as a meaningless superficiality. As someone who carries a Canadian passport, who is constantly questioned at international and national borders, and whose identity is challenged by gatekeepers everywhere, the only nationality I will admit to is, "writer".

"National days and national songs are anachronisms, as dated as the statues being thrown into rivers"

While the importance of literature is celebrated in nations such as Ireland and Iraq, where many nationalist politicians were also poets, its power can be rather underplayed in Canada, as we're so often swept up in the larger tide of American culture.

The late, great Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch once told me of the time he was invited to the Babylon Festival in Iraq, in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war. One evening, he went for a walk after supper, but seeing that the streets were deserted, ran back to his hotel in a panic, fearing he'd missed an air raid signal. He arrived to find the night deskman glued to the television. "What’s happening?" he asked. "Has there been more bombing?" "No," replied the hotel clerk. "Everyone's at home watching the national poetry competition on TV."

This cancelled Canada Day, I wonder, how to celebrate and mourn at the same time?

Let us read our poems to each other, in all of our languages, that merge into one. Or, like the title of the first book of poetry by our national bard Leonard Cohen, whom many say was the inspiration for A Case of You, let us compare mythologies. You tell me yours, and I'll tell you mine. You will find me on my balcony, with no flag pinned to my guitar, singing,

I drew a map of Canada
Oh, Canada
With your face sketched on it twice


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. 

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars 

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.