The hidden racist history of ’O Canada’

Laila El Mugammar: Every time I stand for the Canadian national anthem, I think about the song’s composer, who founded a blackface minstrel troupe. What does it mean to sing the melody of a man who wore me as a costume?
Laila El Mugammar, Chatelaine
Allegretto con Bravura, handwritten sheet music by Calixa Lavallée. (Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada e011163931)

Every time I stand for the Canadian national anthem, I think about blackface. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I thought about blackface during the anthem long before Justin Trudeau’s appearances in blackface and brownface came to light last fall. The perpetrator I imagine was never photographed, and the risk of his reputation being ruined because this history resurfaces unexpectedly is negligible, since he’s long dead. His name was Calixa Lavallée, and the tune he wrote is sung every morning, in schools and parliaments across the country.

I learned about Lavallée from Anthems and Minstrel Shows: The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842–1891, a book by Brian Christopher Thompson. Lavallée was a French-Canadian musician and composer who founded a travelling blackface minstrel troupe, the New Orleans Minstrel Company, which performed across Canada and the United States to great acclaim. He is also the composer of our national anthem.

READ: Why being ‘nice’ is bad for Canada

What does it mean to sing the melody of a man who wore me as a costume? Lavallée made a name for himself in reducing Blackness to a monolith for cheap laughs. Though he was not the lyricist of our anthem, his melody remained through the many English and French drafts that predated Parliament’s official words. His legacy still comes to life in my Black voice. I’ve tried to excise blackface from the body of his work, but it had metastasized long before the scalpel fell from my hand.

I first wrote about Canada’s history of blackface minstrelsy last fall, shortly after I read Thompson’s work. My post became littered with many caps-locked messages from octogenarian men. “What a horrible thing for ANY PERSON of ANY ORIGIN to say!” one wrote. His needless qualifiers—“any person” and “any origin”—made clear what he really wanted to call me.

I had unearthed a history of anti-Blackness, and in doing so, disrupted his vision of Canada as a racism-free space. I am doing that again now; committing what some would consider witchcraft to render Lavallée visible to you. We believe racism is a cultural export, but it is as home-grown as Lavallée.

I am glad to remember him. By mocking us, he paradoxically rendered our struggles visible in a country that seldom acknowledges its historical Black presence. We cannot relegate ourselves to only remembering what makes us feel good. We must bear witness to how entrenched racism is in our everyday lives, so that we can begin to heal and move forward.

This July 1st, think when you summon Lavallée’s ghost to your backyard shindig. Couple it with a discussion of your strategies for anti-racism, until he rolls over in his grave.