Thunder Bay

Ontario high school students create own Ojibway version of Canadian national anthem

Indigenous students at Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., learn the national anthem in Ojibway, while also finding ways to connect to their culture and language.

Students say 4-month project helped them reflect on their Indigenous culture, language

Students at Hammarskjold High School receive an applause after hearing their Ojibway version of the national anthem for the first time. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Students at Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., are celebrating their brand new recording of the Canadian national anthem in Ojibway.

Every Friday, the Lakehead public school plays a version of the anthem, sung in Ojibway. Over time, some of the Indigenous students wondered if they could record a version reflecting the local dialect of their language.

Music teacher Sharon De Leon was nearby to hear the request and went to work to make it happen.

"I thought, that is an excellent idea, you said that in front of the right person," recalled De Leon. "I've always been looking for ways to connect the Indigenous students in the school to the arts and I thought this could be an opportunity to jump on and get them into music."

Listen to the Hammarskjold High School version here:

O Canada 1:30

Opportunity came with challenges

Over about four months, the school worked with elders from the community on the translation and for help on the pronunciation of the words.

But beyond the writing, there were also challenges with making words align with the beat and tune of the anthem itself. Josh Meekis, a grade 11 student, said the nuances of the Ojibway language made the learning process a bit different.

"Our language, it's very descriptive. Instead of using separate words  like 'the' 'and' it's all combined and mushed into one word. So words can get super long. And especially in O Canada, where some beats only have one syllable, we have to squish a word into one syllable." 

"O Zaaganaashiiaki" is Ojibway for "O Canada." Due to the descriptive nature of the Ojibway language, some words can get very long. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Since the Ojibway dialects vary from place to place, their version represents Thunder Bay and the local areas around it, said Meekis.

De Leon said the learning process was just as difficult for her as it was for the students and  sometimes, she questioned whether her involvement in the project was justified.

"I struggled for many reasons. At first I questioned, is this my place? Is this blond lady to be teaching these students their language that was... stolen from them," De Leon noted. "But at the same time, in this position, I felt they need a voice; they need a teacher to step out and help bring these things forward."

'I'm reclaiming our culture again'

Participating students agreed that taking part in project helped them connect more closely to their Indigenous roots.

"I know that my ancestors, their culture was taken away so I think I'm doing them a favour saying 'I'm learning our culture again. I'm reclaiming our culture again that has been taken away from us," said Meekis. "My grandma, my great grandma would be so proud hearing me sing this, knowing that I'm participating in trying to revitalize our culture and language."

My grandma, my great grandma would be so proud hearing me sing this, knowing that I'm participating in trying to revitalize our culture and language.- Josh Meekis, Grade 11 student

Selena Baxter, another Grade 11 student, felt the project was a way to break down stereotypes around Indigenous youth, while also aiding with the reconciliation process.  

"People have this stereotype that we can't amount to anything. But here we are, as students, we did this big project, and here it is to show for it now," said Baxter. "It [helped] bring together everyone and reconciliate things just because we are pushing forward and pushing past and just thriving past everything that's happened in our past."

Students record their Ojibway version of O Canada in a classroom at Hammarskjold High School. (Submitted by Hammarskjold HIgh School )

It was also a bonding experience for the young performers.

"I kinda just wanna take away the way we build relationships through this, how we got to learn from each other, and how close we got bonding over something – our own language," said Baxter. "We just bonded over that so well. All of us were like 'oh yeah we want to get together and do this.' And all of us were driven for it."

The students hope to continue singing their Ojibway version of the national anthem as much as they can.