The siren song of nationalism

By Tyler Wolfe

There tend to be a handful of events throughout the year in which I find myself singing our national anthem. Undoubtedly some will find more occasions than I, others less. To be compelled to sing it five days a week, however, seems like overkill. A New Brunswick elementary school principal who decided it was unnecessary for his students to sing the anthem daily has been unfairly demonized as unpatriotic by parents and politicians. The recent forced reinstatement of the daily anthem has less to do with the benefit to the children singing than a misplaced sense of nationalism.

It was over one year ago that Belleisle Elementary School principal Erik Millett ended the mandatory practice of singing the anthem to begin each day. He said a number of parents had complained about their children being made to do so. It has been suggested that the complaints were over the reference to God and the dependence on Him in the anthem of a secular state to maintain the freedom and glory of our land. Millett, citing privacy issues, refused to divulge the nature of the complaints, however. Instead, he said the decision was related to both the complaints and a desire to better organize the school day.

Though the reference to God is an out-of-date intrusion of religion into the political sphere, it is not the real issue at hand. However, the assumption that this is the issue has a Conservative cabinet minister crying “political correctness run wild.” Steve Earl once said, “no matter what anybody tells you, it is never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question anything in a democracy.” Though he may not be known as an accomplished political philosopher and this is not America, Earl is right. If someone wants to question the legitimacy of a lyric in “O Canada,” that is his or her right. It is not political correctness run wild; it is the ongoing evolution of our society. If there is enough support for the idea, it will produce change; if not, then no harm done.

The larger issue, however, is one of excessive nationalism. Why should elementary kids be forced to recite the national anthem every morning? I’m a patriot and I sing the anthem when the occasion calls for it, but I certainly do not sing it every morning. Can you imagine your prof leading his class, or your boss her office, each morning in a stirring rendition of “O Canada?” And yet there is a public uproar when an elementary principal decides it’s no longer necessary either.

The comments on various news websites covering this story are harsh in their condemnation, calling Millett many things from unpatriotic to traitorous. The criticism Millett has received from the general public, parents and politicians is unfair. It stems from the perceived necessity to openly display one’s patriotism as boldly as one can. This is misguided. It is the same sort of erroneous excessive nationalism that says “I’m more patriotic than you because I have a yellow ribbon on my car that proves I support the troops.” This mentality was most pronounced in the United States after the 9/11 attacks, when it was briefly seen as unpatriotic or un-American to question any decision the president took. We all know how that turned out. Unfortunately, this mentality has found a receptive audience among some Canadians too.

Singing “O Canada” each morning will not make better citizens out of these children. Nor was the singing of the anthem cancelled because Millett hates this country. To mandate the singing of the anthem is one small step towards an overly nationalistic mentality in which the state and its institutions are seen as untouchable. Neither Canada nor its national anthem is perfect and to raise questions or criticisms is not unpatriotic. True patriotism doesn’t come from singing “O Canada” more than someone else. This situation was unnecessarily politicized and people responded through base emotion rather than clear thought. This mentality, not Millett’s decision, is the real threat to this country.

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