The last time I sang our national anthem was on a July long weekend in Kamloops two years ago. Shy in a crowd of many, my voiced cracked in a half-hearted attempt to appear patriotic and, though now thirty-four, I know I reminded myself to sing the new words, sans “God”, as we has been instructed sometime around grade four. My son sang gleefully beside me, slipping into the French version when the English words escaped him, the French lyrics more forceful, prideful: “…des plus brillants exploits….” The great Canadian immersion project.
When I entered the gymnasium of the local elementary school this past May 17th, I recalled all of the gyms of my school years and the frequent “assemblies” which always began with a scramble to sit near my friends and then a hush as we stood for, in the early years, God Save The Queen, and then, of course, O Canada. My vocal performance then was no different from that of today, struggling with the tricky balance of appearing “cool” in front of my friends but feeling in my gut it would be wrong not to sing (after all, Canadians young and old are embarrassed by any overt American-style jingoism…aren’t they? or perhaps it is what Adrienne Clarkson calls our “pathological modesty”). In truth, butterflies would tickle my stomach and I would feel something incredibly like pride as the anthem built momentum. I don’t doubt that both the cool and the uncool felt that same glow.
So, as I sidled up to an election volunteer in my son’s school gym that Tuesday, I felt the familiar thrill of my childhood anthemism. Of course, I can attribute the lump in my throat to the super-polished wood floors, the stale smell of sweat, or the stage and its makeshift curtains over which hung the red and white maple leaf. And yet, if I dig deep, I know that it’s because each of these are successfully symbolic, they make me believe, in the joy of childhood, in the satisfaction of education , in Canada, in the whole damn reason I was standing there that afternoon, in democracy.
I don’t normally think of myself or my family as very politicized, yet my 9- year old son wants to be Prime Minister and giggles at the Globe’s Heather Mallick and her term of dislike for our southern neighbour’s leader (or “neighbor” if you wish): “Bushlet”. My husband has started to refer to me as the “pop-up head” as I interject every news item on the radio with my invariably partially-informed, yet passionate, views on world affairs (“I can’t believe the CBC would broadcast comments like ‘dipstick’ “; “Newsweek shouldn’t have to apologize for publishing misinformation; for god’s sake, Bush went to war on misinformation!! And so on…) When my mother-in-law suggested I was wasting my vote if I voted for a certain environmentally-concerned provincial party, I argued that the heart of democracy was not strategic voting and that her vote could be considered trash too if she voted by default for the likely winner, rather than for the party that most closely represented her values. My friends and I discuss the fallacy of a true democracy in a two-party race and a decreasing voter turnout. Perhaps I am more politicized than I realized.
Of course, it was just a provincial election and (yes, Ottawa and Quebec) JUST a wacky B.C. election at that, but what I realized that afternoon as I hovered over my ballot (YES! STV) and my stomach did flip-flops was that O Canada and Gordon Campbell were the same butterfly. I realized that, with the possible exception of Stephen Harper, I can trust that Canadian politicians, regardless of the waxing and waning of scandals and budgets, will forever uphold democracy, will forever cherish my right to vote and it is up to me to stand on guard, protégera nos foyers et nos droits, by submitting my ballot. If democracy is a sham it is only because a country’s citizens (or a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état) make it one. Sure, I am sometimes as embarrassed by our politicians as I am singing aloud but, fortunately, I can hide behind the cardboard divider. Something as simple as a school auditorium or as seemingly complex as a provincial election nudges the word “free” from my heart to my lips. Free. As in True North. As in Strong and. Sentimentality perhaps, simple-mindedness even, but just try to sing O Canada and not feel funny inside. Peculiar and ha ha at once.
I used to be envious of the determination and passion of voters in countries where democracy is in its infancy, where, sometimes, to vote could mean to die. Canadians no longer value this freedom, I would tell myself. I saw no trace of that lazy monster voter apathy last month on the city roads awash with campaign posters. When I stopped for milk at 7:30 p.m., the clerk asked me to hurry, so she could make it to a polling station before it closed at 8. At my polling station, an elderly man struggled with his cane up the path; he looked determined. He looked proud. I’ll bet he had butterflies.
(as published in Monday Magazine, July 2005)