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‘Our home on native land’: Jully Black calls for small change to O Canada lyrics

Change acknowledged existence of Indigenous people prior to colonization
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Jully Black is photographed in Toronto on Friday Jan. 17, 2020. Black made a small change to the lyrics of O Canada at Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Jully Black says she hopes her one-word change to O Canada at Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game leads to a lasting revision of the lyrics.

The Juno-winning R&B singer performed Canada’s national anthem before the NBA celebrity basketball game in Salt Lake City, Utah, making one alteration to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples who lived on the land before European settlers.

It was a subtle edit in the anthem’s usual opening, replacing “O Canada! Our home and native land!” with “O Canada! Our home on native land.” Her delivery added a slight emphasis to “on” when she sang the word.

“I wouldn’t have sung it if I didn’t believe it should be this,” Black said in a phone interview.

“This one word would significantly give honour, support and recognition to the Indigenous community who have often been overlooked and unrecognized.”

The 45-year-old singer characterized her edit as not perfect. Some may see “native” in this context as the wrong word, she added, but she hopes it stokes more conversation and ultimately action.

“If not now, when? If not me, who? That’s how I look at it,” she added.

“If it is not meaningful in this day and age for me, it doesn’t make sense. And as a person of colour, who is a Black person, who’s been asking for the support of many nations, it’s up to me now to do that change.”

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Black said she’s performed O Canada “more times than she can count” throughout her career, but over the past three years she turned down a number of opportunities to sing it for events while she educated herself about Indigenous rights and reconciliation.

When the call for the all-star game came about, she turned to people close to her for advice.

“I decided to ask friends who are Indigenous how they felt about me doing the anthem,” she said.

None of them suggested edits to the words, Black said, but she collected their thoughts and examined how they might influence her performance. That led her to consider the change. She took the lyrics for a test run on morning television last week and found the feedback was “very spiritual.”

“That one word, for me, felt right because it’s fact, and I wanted to lead with love and fact,” she said.

Some have criticized Black’s revision, though this is hardly the first time the words in O Canada have been changed.

For instance, in 2018 a years-long effort to make the anthem more inclusive led by late Liberal MP Mauril Belanger became official when the second line was rewritten to make it gender-neutral.

The new wording of the anthem’s English version became “in all of us command” from “in all thy sons command.”

Canadians who react negatively to the notion of updating Canada’s lyrics should take a moment to reflect, Black said.

“I think it’s important for them to now go into their private space and ask themselves why,” she continued.

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge the fact when it’s not going to take away from your existing privilege?”

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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