O Canada: A Teachable Moment

01 Feb

"Why do we have to sing O Canada in school every day?" My 5 year old asked me as we pulled up to her school this morning. When she began kindergarten, I briefly wondered what she'd think about this musical interlude at the beginning of every school day. She never mentioned it, and I never remembered to ask her. Other things seemed more important: who she played with, what story she was reading, what happened on the playground. O Canada was something she did in the morning, like putting her coat in a cubby and taking the chairs down at the beginning of class, unworthy of notice (though those rituals could fill another blog post...). Why did she ask me that question today? I find she often asks the big questions at times when we're rushed, in motion, the times when I can't fully devote my attention to the answer. This one seemed important so I parked the car, glanced at the clock and realized I had about 4 minutes before the bell rang.

"Why do you think?" I asked, curious to see how she had rationalized it.

"I don't know," was her less-than-helpful answer.

"Do you think it's because it's everyone's favourite song?" I countered.

"No. It's not my favourite song."

We put our children in an institution for  most of their waking hours and often ask them not to question the practice. Their time is portioned off into sections/subjects/activities. Their days are punctuated by bells and we demand that they form certain habits. Do we take enough time to explain why? 

O Canada is a fascinating media text. Our children can recite it from memory but can they think critically about it? National anthems say something about nations and a study of your country's national anthem (or another country's) can be very revealing. Canadian teachers, here's a great way to bring Canadian content into your classroom and incorporate media studies across the curriculum (suitable for French/language classes, English, Social Studies, History, Geography, Civics... the list goes on).

How can we begin the conversation? Why not ask the same question my 5 year old asked: Why do we sing O Canada (or your national anthem) in school every day?

Read the words, without the music:

What does it say about Canada?

What does it say about what it means to be Canadian?

Who is included in the text? How do the words unite Canadians?

Who might feel excluded? How do the words divide Canadians?

Take a look at the 1908 English lyrics:How do different historical versions of the text compare? Take a look at the history of the anthem (Government of Canada, Wikipedia).

How has the anthem changed over time?

What has remained the same?

What might a future version of the anthem look like?

The anthem is often played in schools, at sporting events, ceremonies or on television (usually to end or begin the TV day, though in a world of 24 hour television, today this is mostly found on local stations). Take a look at these examples:


How does the medium affect the message?

What are some other instances in which national anthems are played? How might they be similar or different from the examples above?

What are some of the ways that different audiences might react to the anthem, depending on where or when it is played?

Listen to the French version and the English version:

How is the French version different from the English version?

How might those differences be explained?

Listen to the music, without the words:

How does the music make you feel? 

How are pitch, rhythm, melody used?

How do different musical versions change the anthem?

Last year, William Shatner recorded a version of O Canada for the NFB.

How does this version compare to the ones we have examined?

How does it complicate the idea of what it means to be Canadian?

My 5 year old and I had a (very brief) conversation about what/how we learn in school and what we learn at home. We talked about what it means to be part of a family and what it means to be part of a larger community. At least, we began that discussion. I'm sure there will be more. In the few minutes before the bell rang, there wasn't a great deal of time to go into detail, but I think that part of the question at least was answered, and most of all, I hope it leads to more questions. 

There are so many ways to use O Canada with our children and our students. How do you use the national anthem in your classroom? What are other aspects of Canadian culture that could be explored in the classroom? Add your ideas in the comments below!

1. Have your students write (or re-write) a verse for the anthem that includes their Canadian experience.