Don Amero wasn’t even sure he wanted to sing O Canada.
Last Sunday evening, the Winnipeg country and folk singer-songwriter got a call from his friend, Mark Chipman, the executive chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets, asking whether he would be willing to sing the national anthem at game one of the second round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
Only days before, the country had learned of the discovery, announced by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. The Jets intended to begin their opening ceremonies with a moment of silence for the children.
But would an anthem celebrating Canada even be appropriate after that?
The Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves: What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far
“The Jets organization were struggling with, what’s the proper move here?” said Mr. Amero, recalling his conversations with Mr. Chipman. “We wrestled with the idea of having just the moment of silence and saying, ‘Tonight’s not the night for the anthem.’ Because there are so many questions Canadians are asking themselves right now: What is Canada?”
For two days, he went back and forth on whether he could perform the anthem. “George Stroumboulopoulos pointed it out the other night,” explained Mr. Amero, during a phone interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday afternoon.
“How do you have a moment of silence, and then moments later sing ‘God keep our land,’ knowing full well that the atrocities in this country were at the hands of people who claimed to be in the name of God?”
But after mulling it over, Mr. Amero, who is of Cree and Métis heritage on his mother’s side and European descent on his father’s side, concluded that, “I don’t believe, and I think many Canadians don’t believe, that this was at the hands of God. This was at the hands of people who had hatred in their heart for a people. And I don’t believe that God did this. So I can peacefully sing that line and know that it wasn’t Him or the creator. So, I was at peace with that.”
Still, he knew he couldn’t perform the conventional chest-thumping rendition of O Canada, of the sort that he’d done at three previous Jets games over the years. “I thought of altering lyrics. I thought of leaving lyrics out. I thought, what if I did the Colin Kaepernick thing and take a knee? And none of that felt right to me.”
On Tuesday, still uncertain of how to proceed, he drove his wife and three young children up to the family’s cabin, got them settled in, then returned to Winnipeg. By the time he arrived home, it was about 1:30 in the morning; there were only 17 hours until game time. “And that’s when I thought of the idea of, like, a sombre, melancholy, almost dark music note.” At 2:30 a.m., he made a rough recording of his idea and sent it off to Mr. Chipman, who quickly gave him the green light.
And so on Wednesday night, as about three million Canadians watched on Sportsnet, CBC and TVA, a slow progression of moody, unsettling bass notes thrummed through Bell MTS Place, Mr. Amero brought the microphone unsteadily to his mouth, lifted his eyes to the camera, and delivered a mournful anti-anthem that seemed perfectly calibrated to the present, uncertain moment.
“I just said to myself, this is for those children in the ground and the many others that we don’t know of, and this is for those here with me now, those residential-school survivors and those in this country. And I really wanted to dedicate it to them, because I do feel like, as a nation, there are some things to be proud of but there’s also a lot of things that we need to sort through, and that was heavy on my heart when I sang,” he said.
“And I wanted it to be mournful. I wanted it to be something where people would lean in a little more going: ‘Yeah, really, what do these lines actually mean?’ And I knew if I said [the lyrics] slow and patient and really allowed people to kind of digest them, you know – that was really my goal.”
He wanted, he said, to “create unity around the question of what is Canada. Because I feel like I’ve heard an overwhelming response of people who have, for lack of a better term, have been shaken, who’ve kind of awoken to the realities of our history.”
The Jets have led the National Hockey League in a number of reconciliation initiatives since landing back in Winnipeg in 2011. In 2015, the team banned costume headdresses at their home games after a Chicago Blackhawks fan wore one to Bell MTS Place. A year later, the Jets became the first team in the league to include a land acknowledgement in the opening of every home game. Last year, the team played host to the Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers from a local primary school, who performed O Canada in Ojibwe.
Around the same time, the team also brought on Kevin Chief, a former MLA and the co-founder of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre, as the senior adviser of community development for True North.
Mr. Chief, who is Anishinaabe and Métis, was instrumental in helping to devise the moment of reflection on Wednesday night, in which the arena glowed with Indigenous orange, and the designs of numerous Inuit and Métis and First Nations women artists flickered on the overhead screen. He also invited two elders to flank Mr. Amero during the anthem.
“I didn’t want Don to feel that he had to carry that alone,” said Mr. Chief, in a separate phone interview. Elder Wally Swain carried tobacco and an eagle feather, while his wife, Karen, cradled a pair of baby moccasins.
“For them to stand there, with the tobacco that represents the teaching of gratitude and an eagle feather, which represents love, and then the moccasins that represent [the campaign to] Bring our Children Home, to stand there with Don and to be able to do that for us collectively, I thought was quite powerful.”
On Thursday, Mr. Amero was gratified to hear of the effect his performance seemed to have had on Canadians. Still, he said, “to be honest, I’m not sure if I can go back into that kind of space to sing the anthem. I think the way I sang it yesterday is the lament in my heart. And I think until we can at least find the psyche of the Canadian people changing and shifting, that to me is the anthem that sits in my heart today.”