'It keeps our language alive': Winnipeg youth choir will sing national anthem in Ojibway at Jets game

Riverbend Community School 's Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers will deliver the Canadian anthem in Ojibway during the Winnipeg Jets versus Tampa Bay Lightning game, — a first at an NHL game.
Winnipeg youth choir to sing Canadian national anthem in Ojibway at Jets game Friday night. 1:12

On Friday night, Winnipeg Jets fans will witness a first for the team, as students from Riverbend Community School perform Canada's national anthem in Ojibway.

According to the team's website, this will be the first time O Canada has been sung in the Indigenous language at a Jets game.

The Riverbend School's Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers, a choir made up of 10 singers between the ages of eight and 10, will perform the anthem.

"I feel really proud, very proud of them," said Gloria Barker, an Ojibway immersion teacher at Riverbend and one of the choir's instructors. 

"For me, it just touches me knowing that they've come this far, to know the language to be able to sing it proudly at the Jets game," she said. "It's very moving, so inspiring to see the young people speaking their language, and better yet to sing it in their language."

The performance is part of a weekend of Indigenous-themed events for the Jets and the AHL's Manitoba Moose.

The teams will host WASAC Night, in recognition of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre, on Friday and the Follow Your Dreams game on Saturday, when the Moose host the Laval Rocket.

The teams will be wearing jerseys sporting the special Follow Your Dreams logo. After the games, the jerseys will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to WASAC, which works to create opportunities for Manitoba Indigenous youth to play sports.

The weekend events are part of a broader NHL initiative called "This Is Hockey," focused on diversity and inclusiveness.

Gloria Barker, a teacher at Riverbend Community School in Winnipeg, has been teaching members of the Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers to perform songs in Ojibway since the choir started in 2016. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Barker says the Riverbend choir, formed in 2016, has been invited to perform at several other events around Winnipeg. She believes that exposure helped the choir land the gig at the Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning game on Friday.

The singers got a little taste of what to expect in front of the home crowd when they performed at a Jan. 10 event at at the Neeginan Centre in Winnipeg, unveiling the special edition jerseys for this weekend's Jets and Moose games.

The girls sang two Ojibway songs, Boozhoo (Welcome) and Miigwech (Thank You), to a packed room at the event.

Grade 5 student Shaylee Sinclair has been singing with the choir for around two years, and says she's excited to perform on Friday night.

"It's really fun to sing in Ojibway," said Sinclair, an Ojibway immersion student at Riverbend Community School. "You get to learn more songs in Ojibway."

Shaylee Sinclair is a Grade 5 student at Winnipeg's Riverbend Community School, and has been a member of the Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers choir for around two years. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Sinclair says she tries to speak the language at home.

Barker says the choir has been squeezing in extra rehearsals since learning earlier this month they would be performing the anthem.

"We have been trying to get them to rehearse every day before they go out for lunch," said Barker. 

On Thursday, the choir headed to Bell MTS Place for their first rehearsal at ice level.

"It's not fazing them yet," Barker said. "But tomorrow, it's going to hit them."

Barker says what moves her the most is that this experience has transcended all generations.

"The elders were saying that it should be really awesome if we could hear our national anthem sung in our own language. That's really an honour for them," she said.

"It's keeping our language alive through revitalization. Reviving our language, giving it back to the younger generation."

Members of Riverbend Community Schoool's Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers rehearse for their performance at the Winnipeg Jets game on Jan. 17. The choir will sing O Canada in Ojibway, believed to be a first in an NHL game. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

With files by Cameron MacIntosh