O Canada has been sung countless times within the walls of Bell MTS Place but when the Strong Warrior Girls Anishinaabe Singers from Riverbend Community School in the Seven Oaks School Division (SOSD) perform the national anthem on Friday, Jan. 17 at the Winnipeg Jets WASAC (Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre) Night it will be a historic event.
The game will mark the first known time that the Canadian national anthem is sung in Ojibwe at a professional sporting event and the opportunity carries a lot of weight, not just for the ten students that make up the choir, but for the entire community.
"It's not just for the girls, it's for all Indigenous people. There's just so much pride," said Sherri Denysuik, Indigenous Education Lead for the SOSD who helped to coordinate the opportunity for the choir.
The choir members, girls ages 8-10, are part of the Ojibwe Immersion program at Riverbend Community School which has enrollment of 85 students and is in its fourth year as the only such program in Winnipeg.
"The older generation who went to residential schools, like my parents, didn't pass (the Ojibwe language) on because they were taught that it was a language that didn't matter," Denysuik explained.
"To have these young girls representing language revitalization and not just within the Seven Oaks community, but on a national level, I think it's just such a gift for everyone," said Denysuik.
The idea to sing the national anthem in Ojibwe at a Jets game was just a pipe dream when Ojibwe Immersion teacher Gloria Barker first heard it suggested by an elder at a conference she attended. Now she is grateful for the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the language as well as the one-of-a-kind program.
Barker, who also helps to run the choir said that she uses music as a tool in her classroom to better engage students.
"I find that teaching the language through music, they learn the words better and become more fluent," she said noting that the singing of O Canada in Ojibwe is a staple activity in her classroom and music program.
While the girls are excited to add to their performance repertoire, which has included school assemblies, Indigenous events and conferences and other community events, they may not really know what is in store for them at Bell MTS Place.
Barker suggested that they watch a game on TV before their big performance to get a sense of the size of the arena and flow of the pre-game events.
"They are building and growing and the good thing about them is they're not shy. They just go there and sing and they're proud."
The girls got a bit of a practice run in as they performed a "Welcome" and "Thank-you" song at True North's WASAC and Follow Your Dreams jersey unveiling event on Jan. 10. While there were a few hundred people in the crowd it was still a bit shy of the 15,000-plus audience that will be in front of them on Jan. 17 and the countless more invisible audience members watching at home on the broadcast.
"I keep reminding them there's going to be a lot of people so they're very excited."
The choir performance will be just one element of Indigenous culture that will be showcased throughout the WASAC/FYD weekend with First Nations drumming, Métis fiddling and Inuit throat singing all part of the gameday program along with a ceremonial puck drop with community youth and elders.
The faculty of Riverbend Community School will be watching with pride at a viewing party to cheer on the girls and principal Fortunato Lim said an assembly is planned to give the entire school a live taste of their Jets performance.
He acknowledged the power of hockey in uniting people and hopes that the WASAC initiative, along with the singing of O Canada in Ojibwe will contribute to a changed narrative and increased understanding.
"This is going to be a wonderful thing, we have our own children knowing where their parents have come from and reclaiming their language," Lim said. "It may not sink in that night but certainly when they look back at this they will be looking at something that is really going to change the way for many of them."
For more information on True North's WASAC and Follow Your Dreams games, please visit https://www.tnse.com/news/second-annual-jets-wasac-night-and-moose-follow-your-dreams-day-feature-special-edition-jerseys/ and for tickets visit WinnipegJets.com/TICKETS and MooseHockey.com/TICKETS.