The country where I live has been talking a lot about anthems this week. What does it mean to stand for a national anthem, and what does the anthem itself stand for?
Georges E. Sioui — an historian and Wendat who lives in Vancouver — remembers being taught the Canadian anthem at his Lorette reserve school, run by French-speaking nuns.
Sioui remembers his teacher, “her thick, dark eyebrows streaks of war paint rising to the starched white helmet beneath her veil,” imparting a pointed education when he was six-years-old.
‘Your poor ancestors were savages… The king [of France] took pity on them and sent missionaries to convert them, but your savage ancestors killed the missionaries. They became our Holy Canadian Martyrs, who died to save the savages.’
And with this, moved almost to tears, she made us kneel and pray for forgiveness from the Holy Canadian Martyrs for our ancestors’ cruelty… ‘You should ask God’s forgiveness every day for the sins of your ancestors and thank Him for giving you the Catholic faith and snatching you from the hands of Satan, who kept your savage ancestors in a state of idolatry, deceitfulness, thievery, war, and cannibalism. Stand up; we’re going to sing a hymn of thanks to the Blessed Virgin.’
The hymn she then launched into was not the national anthem, but when the Canadian anthem came up at the end of that day, Sioui remembers it being part of the same chain of thought:
The nun — we called her ‘mother’ — proudly announced she was going to start teaching us our national anthem… ‘You must learn it as a prayer,’ she preserved, ‘because it’s more of a prayer than a hymn. It expresses not only our pride in being Canadians, but even more our pride in being Christians.’
This was the word of the Government of Canada. Today some people want to argue that history like this is in the distant past. Sioui’s story shows that it is within living memory, and those living memories draw the past into the present.
Notably, Sioui also writes that that phrase, “the distant past,” would not have made any sense to the original peoples of this land. The title of the book where Sioui tells the above story, Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle, refers to the idea that the Wendat and other Indigenous nations had a circular view of life, including a circular view of time, which is at odds with the kind of “linear” outlook that places the past far away in one direction.
I’m so accustomed to living in a “linear society” that I’m finding it difficult to deeply understand what it would be like to live in a circular one. To that end, next week’s post will summarize Sioui’s chapter on the “origins and mythology” of the Wendat Confederacy, a nation that was central for centuries in the lands now called Ontario, Quebec, and the northeastern United States.