For 12 years of my life, I stood up nearly every morning as some version of the Canadian anthem played over the speakers at my Ontario school. Like most of the other kids in my classes, I was silent, mind elsewhere, waiting for it to be over so I could sit down and focus on more important things.
Since my last day of high school, I can count on one hand how many times I've heard the anthem. On the most recent occasion I can remember, at the graduation ceremony for my masters degree, I remained seated.
I've now forgotten words that were once seared into my memory. They've been replaced by Canadian things I find to be more important, such as Drake lyrics. I'm happy about that, because I wish I wasn't subjected to that daily blast of mindless patriotism in a place ostensibly dedicated to learning.
Unfortunately, my experience in school isn't unique — there's no set policy nationwide, but the majority of provinces have regulations that promote the anthem in schools in one way or another, many of them requiring public schools to play "O Canada" to either start or finish the day.
The exact reason given by each of these provinces for their decision varies, but they hinge on patriotism. According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, for example, the anthem is played in order to "nurture allegiance to Canada and to contribute to the social, moral, and spiritual development of the pupils."
This means playing the anthem each day serves an explicit political purpose, even by the government's admission. The anthem itself is inherently political, which is why people have led campaigns to try to change the lyrics — focusing on the fact that it wasn't gender neutral, erases Indigenous people and promotes God in a supposedly secular society — and reactionaries have melted down every time.
A chauvinistic song that celebrates a state built on the genocide of Indigenous people should be discarded entirely, but barring that, it shouldn't be pushed on students, many of whom are too young to critically engage with the lyrics. Surely even conservatives, who think using the word "penis" in elementary school sex-ed classes is part of an inappropriate political agenda, can see how this is true.
Patriotism holds back critical thought.
Sure, the government, which has a vested interest in promoting allegiance to itself, pays for school. But school shouldn't be regarded as an opportunity for patriotic inculcation any more than other public services.
The government also pays for health care and waste management. And yet, we aren't forced to stand up with other sick patients in waiting rooms, wailing out the lyrics through sore throats before seeing a doctor. We don't have to salute sanitation workers before they take our trash, although they deserve it more than the anthem.
Moreover, forced patriotism in school via the anthem is potentially more inappropriate than if it was mandated for many other public services. This is because patriotism holds back critical thought, which the school system should promote.
The government also doesn't force citizens to take part in other organized, flag-saluting spectacles. For example, wearing a poppy, which I don't do, is regarded by some as a way to show patriotism. Yet doing so, or observing the moment of silence on Remembrance Day, isn't required.
It also wouldn't be revolutionary to take the anthem out of schools. Instead, it would be the next step in what appears to be a long-running trend. The anthem used to be played regularly in more places than it is now, including on the CBC, and the country moved on after it was gone.
The same is true of "God Save The Queen," which technically can still be played by schools in Ontario, but is rightfully seen as antiquated by all except Anglophiles and certain strains of the political right.
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Ultimately, there's little chance of government-funded institutions barring the anthem from being played at schools that government presides over. However, at the very least, provinces should no longer force school boards to play the anthem.
In September 2007, a principal at an elementary school in New Brunswick decided to stop playing the anthem on a daily basis. He told the Saint John Telegraph Journal that, "It's not up to me, as a school administrator, to subject kids to something their parents don't want them exposed to. I have to protect the minority rights as well as the majority rights."
More educators should follow his lead, and be given the autonomy to make those decisions, thereby starting much needed critical discussions regarding the anthem.
All students will be better off as a result.
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