o Canada Punjabi

‘O Canada’ in Punjabi unites Quebec nationalists and ROC conservatives in outrage

“It’s intellectually dishonest for Quebec nationalists to suddenly pretend to be so invested in the national anthem when they’re usually busy disparaging all things Canada. If the only time you care about the national anthem is when it’s not performed in French, you don’t really care about the national anthem.”

This past Saturday, before the Winnipeg Jets game against the Colorado Avalanche at the Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg, the NHL made history by featuring a beautiful and, frankly, quite moving rendition of “O Canada” performed in Punjabi by the Amber Trails School Choir — a singing group predominantly comprised of young students of South Asian descent. 

The choice of language wasn’t random. The Jets were celebrating their second annual South Asian Heritage Night and wanted to find a way to incorporate that into the night’s game. Manitoba has a vibrant South Asian community — present since the late 19th century — and Punjabi is currently Canada’s third most spoken language, behind French and English. What’s more, Canada’s Punjabi diaspora is more than a little obsessed with the country’s national sport. 

Hockey is so popular among Punjabi-speaking Canadians that Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition with play-by-play in the language, has been a mainstay for the community for close to a decade now. Even Sugar Sammy mentions the show during his act, recently re-sharing the clip on social media after Saturday’s performance, most likely anticipating some of the reactions that were about to materialize. 

And they didn’t take long. Almost immediately after the performance, an unlikely mix of mostly Canadian conservatives (CPC, People’s Party of Canada partisans, right-leaning heritage-loving “patriots”) and Quebec nationalists united to have a bit of a Twitter meltdown. At first glance, these two groups don’t have much in common, but they do, in fact, both share a general dislike and distrust of multiculturalism, often perceiving any attempts to include minorities in the country’s national symbolism or additional representation of any kind as signs that they’re being assimilated and demographically replaced. 

French omission unfortunate

I’m not insensitive to the pleas for a French version of “O Canada” to be performed far more often across the country, especially given that the song was originally written and performed in French. However, it would be nice if everyone also acknowledged that the word “Canada” (Kanata) itself is Indigenous, a reminder about which non-official languages have consistently been ignored and disrespected most in our collective history.  

Obviously, it would have been ideal if Saturday’s anthem had been performed in all three languages, the way Cree singer Pakesso Mukash did before a Habs game in 2022, and it would be lovely to see “O Canada” performed more often in both French and English across the country. There’s no question that the routine omission of French is continued proof of Anglonormativity in Canada, which, even if not always malicious, can understandably vex French speakers.

But for some to immediately assume that a one-time or perhaps annual ritual of performing the anthem in Punjabi on one specific night highlighting South Asian culture in a city that’s 95% English-speaking is an underhanded move aiming to eliminate French is a tad much. Especially when it’s being performed by young teens, probably already nervous singing in two languages — let alone a third — for a large crowd. Not every omission is a deliberate slight. 

It’s also a little intellectually dishonest for Quebec nationalists to suddenly pretend to be so invested in the national anthem when they’re usually busy disparaging all things Canada. In other words, if the only time you care about the national anthem is when it’s not performed in French, you don’t really care about the national anthem.

Fears about demographic replacement 

O Canada Punjabi
South Asian Heritage Night at the Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg, Dec. 16

In some ways, the “controversy” reminded me of Don Cherry’s racist outburst years ago during Hockey Night in Canada, when he weaponized Remembrance Day symbolism and draped himself in the flag of fake patriotism as a way to disparage and question immigrants’ sense of loyalty and attachment to Canada. 

“Singing ‘O Canada’ is not a patriotic act — it is a demonstration of political power by a minority that enclaves and has no intention of assimilating,” I read on Twitter by someone seemingly oblivious to the fact the kids were singing before a hockey game, not a cricket match. Sooner or later, immigrant integration (and a few generations in, even assimilation) always happens. But I suppose it never happens quickly enough for some. 

In fact, singing Canada’s national anthem in other languages isn’t even new. Six years ago, it was sung in 11 languages in this video. In 2015, an opera soprano sang “O Canada” in Arabic. The following year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed it in 12 languages. Here’s a beautiful version of the U.S. Star Spangled Banner performed in beautiful Louisiana Cajun French. These are all lovely examples of people incorporating and celebrating their multiple identities into mainstream culture, which takes nothing away from the whole. 

Diversity and representation seen as threats

Unfortunately, for some, immigrants’ multiple identities are seen as a threat to homogeneity and a hoped-for monoculture. Some people upset by the anthem’s Punjabi version weren’t necessarily interested in the “purity” of national symbols or even the prominence of their respective language. 

What they fundamentally were objecting to is the encroachment in public spaces and in national symbols and pastimes of people other than them adding their flavour to it. Increased diversity and representation is routinely perceived by them as decreased space for them. The more these groups see immigration as a threat to their collective identity, the less they’re able to imagine or appreciate new immigrants as part of our continuous evolution.

Whether some people like it or not, Canada is a land of immigrants. It’s prospered because of immigration and — thanks to an aging population and low birth rates — will continue to rely heavily on steady immigration in the future. And, yes, that means that the country’s demographics will continue to change. One in five Canadians speak a language other than French or English. These Quebecers and Canadians exist, and we, too, are part of the fabric of this place. And if you want people to feel like they truly belong, then you need to allow them to incorporate parts of who they are into our national symbols and collective identities. 

These are not attempts to erase, dilute or diminish anyone else’s presence or language, but a way to merely add to them.

And these efforts at representation matter deeply. Many recent incidents both across the country and right here in Quebec have highlighted the racism that young Indigenous and Black hockey players have experienced, including a recent incident where a young Quebec Black hockey player was forced to say, “I can’t breathe,” as a teammate knelt on his neck.

All these kids did on Saturday was show their love and pride for both Canada and their own cultural heritage by singing in the language of their parents and grandparents before a very Canadian game. It was a simple, yet incredibly tangible way of including multiple facets of their identity and allowing the face of Canada to expand to include a little more. 

Where’s the harm in that? ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.