I’m Canadian, lived here my whole life, but I can’t remember the words to our national anthem. The lyrics aren’t forgotten, per se, just temporarily misplaced. I can mangle my way through the anthem at a hockey game— memory cued by the collective consciousness, confidence aided by Molson Canadian beer— but if unaccompanied, I’m lost. I take a shortcut at the prelude— “O Canada/ Our home and native land/ True patriot love/ in all Our Son’s command”— a left at the gas station near the scarecrow that resembles Don Cherry, to arrive circuitously at the conclusion, “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee”. I’m missing the middle. I know there’s something about glowing hearts, our free land (ironic given you must be a billionaire to own in Vancouver or Toronto), and maybe a part about Celine Dion, but I can’t string the words together without taking creative license.
Am I a bad Canadian? I don’t think so. I salivate whenever I see ads for Tim Hortons’ poutine. I cheer for The Winnipeg Jets. I say “sorry” too often. I paddle a canoe at least once a year, and feed our country’s hungry mosquitoes. As a young teen, I was even scolded for my nationalism. Our career studies teacher made us draw comic strips laying out our future career paths. My innocent doodles depicted a career trajectory from ‘Astronaut Farmer’ to ‘Prime Minister’ to ‘First President of the World’. My theory was everyone who isn’t Canadian wants to be Canadian anyhow. Under my leadership, we’d make it official. My teacher was not impressed. “Someone else had a similar plan and it didn’t work so well,” he chastised, “His name was Hitler”.
I love Canada so much, I made it my full-time job. As ‘Canada Day Coordinator’, I planned a July 1st party for the City of Thunder Bay, celebrating our great nation with three stages of performers, a parade, fireworks, and ten thousand of my closest friends. I’m embarrassed. For a Canada Day Coordinator to have such a flimsy grasp on O Canada is like Santa Claus not knowing the lyrics to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, or the tooth fairy demonstrating unfamiliarity with incisors, or a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey developing a gluten intolerance.
The problem isn’t with my patriotism, I assure, though my fifth-grade teacher thought otherwise. Disturbed no-one in our class could recite the anthem from heart, he punished us with a daily regimen of writing out the lyrics to O Canada in our journals each morning; like Bart Simpson writing out lines on the chalkboard in the opening credits of The Simpsons. I will not forget our national anthem. I will not forget our national anthem.
It didn’t help. I may have known the words for a while, but the daily exercises of singing the anthem, along with the grainy instrumental tape played over the intercom before morning announcements, then painstakingly penciling out the lyrics, did nothing to commit O Canada to my long-term memory.
What’s weirder is, I can remember arguably less important songs, all the way back from the 1990s. I know MMMBop by heart, right down each of my pre-pubescent crush Taylor Hanson’s moans; the song opening with six ‘Oh’s’ of various durations, followed by an enthusiastic ‘Yeah’.
Maybe O Canada just isn’t a memorable tune. Look at the United States’ anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. First of all, nice name! Much more original than O United States, which is what they could have gone with if they followed our lead. Secondly, it’s exciting! The imagery of bombs bursting in air! The rockets red glare! While I’m grateful Canada is a more peaceful nation than our southern neighbour, our anthem could use more pizazz; perhaps something more suited to who we are, something along the lines of ‘Skates scraping on ice/ Everyone acting nice.’ Not to mention, the dramatic key changes of the The Star-Spangled Banner that add to its theatre. No wonder the United States produces octave lion tamers like Ariana Grande. One must be Mariah Carey to pull it off. Trust me, you’re lucky if I forget The Star-Spangled Banner when we’re standing in a baseball stadium. I can crack glass and shatter spines.
That O Canada is simply not memorable because it’s a ‘meh’ song was my working theory, until I heard a Malcolm Gladwell podcast entitled “Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis”. Gladwell (a Canadian, no less) examined mistakes in Elvis Presley recordings, zoning in on Elvis’s rendition of one song he always messed up, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Gladwell posits the lyrics of Are You Lonesome Tonight? hit too close to home for Elvis causing parapraxis, a Freudian slip, an error caused by an underlying subconscious pain. Elvis feared abandonment and, like clockwork, croaked whenever he arrived at the spoken verse in Are You Lonesome Tonight? about his lover leaving him. In the podcast, Gladwell interviewed another songwriter who instantly related, confessing she always screws up when she performs a song about her mother, the lyrics meaning so much to her that she can’t sing them correctly live even though she wrote them herself.
Is that it? That I’m too in love with Canada— too enamored by freedom and free healthcare and poutine and the CBC— that my subconscious suppresses the lyrics to the one song that most demonstrates my national pride? The alternative, a realization our national anthem isn’t all that memorable or good (kind of like our CFL league), especially in comparison to the United States’ anthem, doesn’t feel all that patriotic. But really, what’s more Canadian than comparing ourselves to Americans, eh?