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Jully Black’s national anthem is making headlines. What would it take to make the change official?

February 21, 2023

“Indigenous Peoples have been saying that line for decades,” said Eva Jewell, the research director at research centre Yellowhead Institute.

Toronto Star: When Canadian singer-songwriter Jully Black performed the national anthem at the NBA’s All-Star Game on Sunday, she surprised — and impressed — fans with a lyric change. Instead of singing, “our home and native land,” the R&B artist sang, “our home on native land.”

In an interview with TSN reporter Kayla Grey, Black said she had reached out to Indigenous friends for feedback, and landed on this version of the song. 

Eva Jewell, the research director at Indigenous-led research centre Yellowhead Institute, said she was “heartened” to see her rendition.  “Indigenous Peoples have been saying that line for decades actually — this is something that is known within our communities,” Jewell said. “So, to see Jully uplift that into the national anthem … it showed me that she has seen us, she understands us; she gets it.”

Have the lyrics to the national anthem changed before?

The lyrics to “O Canada” have been changed many times since the song was first written in French in 1880, but it has only been changed once since the song became the national anthem in 1980. In 2018, a bill to make the lyrics gender neutral — through the change of just two words — was signed into law. The amendment changed the anthem’s second line from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

What was the process of changing the lyrics?

There had been several previous attempts to make the national anthem gender neutral, but it was in 2016 that Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger introduced the private member’s bill that would go on to be successful. Bélanger, who had advocated for the change for years, introduced the successful bill after being diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because his condition was worsening quickly, the bill took on a new sense of urgency.  As with all legislation, the bill had to be approved by the House of Commons and the Senate, and required royal assent.

What led up to the “O Canada” change?

Before the bill was signed into law, a 2013 campaign advocating for the change was led by former prime minister Kim Campbell and author Margaret Atwood. 

In 2014, Bélanger introduced his first private-member’s bill to change the lyrics, which was unsuccessful.

What is unique about this moment in history?

“I think Canada and Canadians more generally … are becoming aware of the facade of Canada as a nice, multinational, peaceful country, and what it took to actually create and maintain the conditions,” Jewell said. In 2021, when it was announced that the remains of as many as 215 children were found at a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C., dialogue on Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous communities was widely renewed. Jewell said the announcement “gripped the public’s attention” and has resulted in more discourse about the history of Canada.

What impact could this lyric change have?

“I would be very surprised if it was changed,” Jewell said, explaining that she believes the government is making it difficult for Indigenous Peoples to claim their titles to lands. 

The Land Back movement has grown in recent years and encompasses different meanings, but according to Yellowhead Institute’s 2019 Land Back paper, land is central to the conflict between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians. As Indigenous Peoples attempt to claim sovereignty and exercise land rights, they are stalled against governments’ claim that the land is Canada’s, the report said.

As such, it’s hard to imagine that Canada would admit that it’s on Indigenous land in such a “publicly and socially important song,” Jewell added.  Hearing it performed this way, though, is powerful, she said. 

“I think that changing that word and being very explicit about settler colonialism is a pause for reflection amongst the Canadian public,” she said. “Too often, the Canadian state is normalized as just being a fact, and that small word change would call that into question and be really explicit about that pre-existing world of the Indigenous countries that were here before Canada violently stole our lands.”

With files from The Canadian Press and Richie Assaly

Manuela Vega is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star’s Express Desk. Follow her on Twitter: @_manuelavega