"And now, would you please rise for the singing of our national anthem..." It was hard not to feel that we had "made it" when our group, Moxy Früvous, was asked to perform O Canada at the Winnipeg Jets game against the Edmonton Oilers a couple of weeks ago. It was the opening match of the 1994-95 exhibition hockey season in front of the home crowd, and we walked out onto the ice like the momentary kings of the Winnipeg Arena.
I have not, in my adult life, ever considered myself a flag-waving nationalist, and I must admit that I have always considered the socialized ritual of deference and devotion to a piece of patriotic music to be a little bizarre. Nevertheless, as a hockey fan and a person who is happy to be a Canadian citizen, singing the anthem in front of thousands of fellow citizens at a National Hockey Leauge game held a special significance for me.
Besides, as Toronto boys, our group may be composed of hopelessly devoted Maple Leaf fans, but we have a place in our hearts for the Jets. The people of Winnipeg have always treated us well and we had the opportunity to meet some of the Jets players last year (Teemu even signed one of his hockey sticks for me!). So when the crowd rose and we stepped onto the ice, we felt a healthy kinship with our audience as we began to sing. Until they started booing.
That's right. They bood while we sang. Certainly not everyone in the arena, but a significant proportion (maybe one-third?) of the folks in the stands participated. The walls came crashing down. Our musical "arrival" had been subverted. Not since a confused bandmate screamed "Thank you Kelowna!" during a gig in Kamloops had we heard such a reaction. I felt like ripping off the Jets jersey that I had politely agreed to wear so that I could reveal a Number 93 Maple Leaf underneath. Ha! That would show them.
Yet, as we reached the middle of O Canada and the chorus of jeers grew louder, I realized they were not booing the presence of our group or the musicality of our performance. No; they were taking offence at our decision to sing the first verses of the anthem in one of Canada's official languages: French.
In a display of shameless collective bigotry, thousands of Winnipeg hockey fans booed the use of the French language. To underscore the target of their attack, the jeers ceased - and were replaced by some cheers - when we reverted into English approximately two-thirds of the way through the song. The irony of the fact that they were heckling their own national anthem was apparently lost on those involved. French was not allowed.
The incident leads me to two clear observations about contemporary cultural life in Canada that may seem glaringly obvious but deserve to be addressed: (1) that overt prejudice is alive and well in our celebrated Canadian "mosaic," and (2) that despite what many in the mainstream media have been saying - and what we Central Canadians may wish to believe - the recent election of a separatist Parti Quebecois government has provoked a negative reaction, a backlash, in some parts of English Canada.
What possible justification could anybody in Winnipeg that night have had for publicly condemning the French language? Surely political frustrations do not excuse a mindless attack on francophones and, by extension, their culture. Removed from the context of interprovincial tensions, could this be seen as anything but a racist action? What about the large population of Franc-Manitobans who may have been represented in the arena or listening at home? What about the French-Canadian players on the ice? One would think Canadian hockey fans would demonstrate more tolerance, given the grand tradition of hockey from Quebec.
The truth is that, notwithstanding revolutionaries who call for an end to the Canadian state, there is no political framework for booing O Canada outside Quebec other than a bigoted response to it being performed in French. At least separatist Quebeckers have justification for jeering the Canadian national anthem, since they either believe it doesn't represent them or don't want it to.
Still, to avoid painting thousands of folks in Winnipeg as brainless racists, I must assume they were reacting directly to the results of the Quebec election. We have been told by political pundits and money markets that the election of the PQ was expected and is therefore being taken in stride by the masses. We have been warned by federalist leaders not to react harshly to the results and to remain calm for fear of provoking an upsurge in separatist sentiment in Quebec leading up to next year's referendum.
But the fires have been stoked in Englidh Canada. People are reacting on a visceral level. The frustration and emotion over the unity debate - and the right-wing concern over federal favouritism toward Quebec - is obviously running high in the West (and, in this case, manifested itself in an ugly and unproductive fashion). Sometimes it's hard to believe that anyone other than the politicians is interested in keeping the country united. I know this isn't true.
Perhaps the blame is to be laid at our doorstep. Maybe we were being unduly antagonistic by singing the anthem in both languages in the midst of contemporary cultural tensions (the red-faced Jets representative responsibel for our appearance sheepishly remarked that it was, "perhaps questionable to have started the anthem in French"). No doubt, we were naive to think that the presence of four anglophone performers wearing hometown Jets jerseys would be able to placate those fans who didn't want to hear the French language. Actually, we didn't think about it.
Clearly there are lessons to be learned here. Not just for the country but for the choices our group must make when offered a chance to perform the national anthem. In the future, I suppose the wise and sensitive path will be to reject our dated bilingual version and sing O Canada only in English outside Quebec. That won't happen though. We like the way it sounds in French too much.