View from here - Our singing ritual hit a sour note

6th March 2009 at 00:00
British pupils are lucky they don't have to chirp the national anthem each day, says Nathan Greenfield

The only thing children learn from singing the national anthem is that their classmates can't carry a tune. At least, that's my memory from school in New York, where I had to drone "The Star Spangled Banner" each morning.

But here in Canada, the decision by one rural primary to stop singing this country's anthem has caused a hullabaloo.

Local press in New Brunswick got wind of the fact that pupils at Belleisle Elementary had stopped warbling "O Canada" in class two years ago. Erik Millet, the principal, had restricted the song to assemblies and special events.

When the news reached the national press, it had morphed into an outright ban on the song. Talk shows across the country were buzzing with angry callers.

The frenzy was fed by Kelly Lamrock, the province's education minister, who said the government was combing through regulations to see if it could order Mr Millet to rescind his decision.

Soon Greg Thompson, the federal minister of veteran affairs, got in on the act. He happened to be the Conservative who defeated Mr Millet when the latter took a break from school to run for the Greens in last October's elections.

In answer to a question from another Conservative MP, Mr Thompson assured the Commons that he stood four-square against Mr Millet's cavalier disregard for patriotism and tradition.

The MP's party colleagues from British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec applauded on cue.

But this turned out to be a glass-houses moment. Few, if any, schools in British Columbia start the day with "O Canada", and it is equally rare in Alberta, Canada's most conservative province. And no journalist could find a school - English or French - in Quebec where even a tinny "O Canada" is piped into classrooms over the public address system.

But Canadians still took sides. Many supported Belleisle parent Susan Boyd, who demanded the anthem be reinstated at her daughter's class as a show of respect for the girl's cousin, Private David Greenslade, and the other 107 Canadians who have died in Afghanistan.

Mr Millet said two other sets of parents had complained when classes had sung the anthem, but refused to reveal the families' names for the - entirely justified - reason of privacy legislation.

The National Post, founded by the (now jailed) Lord Black of Crossharbour, suggested the head might have "simply invented (the) two families to cover for a pre-emptive strike of his own devising". It said Mr Millet's real objection was the mention of God in the line: "God keep our land glorious and free."

The head's defenders argued that the daily act merely aped American practice. One columnist wrote: "Our kids aren't kamikaze pilots heading out on a suicide mission: their true patriot love doesn't need to be commanded so early and so often."

Eventually, an order from the district superintendent forced the school to reintroduce the daily anthem. But matters may yet change. Mr Millet has contacted the province's Human Rights Commission about laying a complaint.

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