O Canada, O What do I do?

A page from Hymns of the Christian Life, 1962,...
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I missed the lineup in the playground this morning. By the time we arrived all the children had gone in, their parents stopping to chat as they wheeled siblings back home. My girlfriends clocked me and some punctuality comments were tossed around, before I headed off to take J in through the front door.
As we entered I could see her class, lined up by the wall, standing quietly with their teacher. J spotted her latest “best friend” and I quickly bent to shush any spontaneous outburst of dramatic reuniting because the melodic strains of “O Canada” were drifting through the tannoy system, mingling with the dust motes in the sunlit air of the corridor. Another woman was standing in the hall, frozen to the spot. Everyone was quiet and still, eyes doing all the talking.

Canada is a little like the US, while there is no Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem is played in schools every morning. Coming from the UK, I’m bemused by this kind of pomp and ceremony in school (it’s reserved for the Last Night Of The Proms); as I remember it we just had assembly, which seemed to be a thoughtfully provided opportunity to power nap before class.
But I digress, here’s the rub: I’m never sure what the protocol is when the national anthem is playing. Do you stand completely still? Should I remove my hat? I don’t think I’m required to salute.

I must confess, I did think of standing, statuelike, until the music stopped, but then remembered my cup of Assam cooling on the table back home and, in hushed tones, wished J a good day at school, gave her a squeeze and a kiss and made my exit, leaving the tinny orchestra behind and stepping back into the sunlight of a bright autumn morning and the freedom from social constraints. What is the expected behaviour in this situation? Can anyone give me some pointers? Anything in Debretts that covers this? I don’t want to become a social pariah, at least, not just yet…

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. American protocol is that you stand quietly at attention (no saluting or hand on heart but with hats off) whenever any country’s national anthem is played, until it is finished. It’s a sign of respect, no different that what you would see when two countries play a football/cricket/rugby match. It is NOT a sign of deference to that country, merely one of respect. Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s not a big faux pas since you’re new to Canada, but in the future you’ll want to stand still, if only to save your daughter from questions from the other kids.

    1. Thanks Linda, I guess the tea will have to go cold and everyone will be exposed to the horrorshow that is my untamed hair, the next time I find myself in this situation. But at least that squirming uncertainty in the pit of my stomach will no longer be there. Now that I’ve listened to it the whole way through, I know it doesn’t go on for too long

  2. I had totally forgotten about this aspect of my school career. Ha! As kids, the National Anthem used to play over the intercom, half in English, half in French, (To this day, I don’t know the second half of O Canada in English) and we would stand at attention, singing when we were little, silently when we were older. If we were out in the hallways, we had to stop and stand still.

    Another fun fact, in the dark old days before cable tv and 24 hour programming, the national anthem used to play on the TV right before programming started at like 5 am or 6 am. I know because I used to get up then (my poor poor parents).

    Anyway, as LInda said, you just stand still and do noting while the anthem is playing. No biggie.

    1. Hey Erica, nice to hear from you on here, am I on your blogroll yet? (Sorry, that was cheeky of me – it’s been one of those days…) At least now, I know what to do, it didn’t feel right somehow to be scuttling about when the only movement in the area was from eyeballs (probably rolling heavenwards). Your memories of early morning patriotism sparked my own memories of the late night equivalent in the UK when programming ended for the night – it’s clear we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum here though, with you being a morning person and me definitely not!

      1. Haha….okay, I just added you to my blogroll. Seriously. I need to be more organized and remember to do stuff like that. Thanks for the remindier – no really, I do appreciate it, and not in a snarky, passive-agressive way. A million irons in a million fires makes me a very scattered lady.

  3. I think playing the National Anthem first thing after the bell is the Canadian way to make sure kids get to school on time. I remember having to stand in the entryway of a few schools while the national anthem played, everyone looking at you..glued to the ‘late’ spot:)

    1. Hahaha, I can soooo relate to that! I think you are probably right, they’re capitalising on everyones visual acts of patriotism to get bums on seats in time! Of course, I’ll just make sure I’m PROPERLY late next time, rather than risk the stigma of being the “Late AND disrespectful” mum!

  4. To me, as a Canadian born person, when the anthem is playing you are to bow your head and think about serving in the army when you are grown up, standing on guard to blow up anyone who is not Canadian or doesn’t like Canada or Canadians……just kidding!!

    As someone else mentioned before, it is merely a sign of respect to stand and remain quiet. Whether Canadian or not, just like in sports, everyone stands out of respect for each team playing. Here, I guess the anthem is played to remind people that we are in Canada and the least you can do for your country of residence is stand. I sing along when I hear it with my hand on my heart because I am happy to be Canadian and would not want to be anything else, except maybe Dutch cause they have legal drugs and prostitution.

    1. I realize it is intended as a respectful, patriotic gesture, but it is INCORRECT for Canadians to put their hands over their hearts while we sing the anthem! It drives me batty when I see people doing that!! Official protocol is that we stand at attention, with our hands at our SIDES, NOT over the heart. When a non-military man removes his hat, it should be in his hand at his SIDE, again, NOT over the heart. A by-product of us Canadians watching too much American TV.

  5. Haha… I’m glad someone loves me…that’s makes 2. You and me…oh ya and Jesus….that’s three….heehee….don’t you guys sing God Save The Queen? What do you do in the morning before school? Have a cup of tea? Wait….it’s coming to me…..some history from a movie……didn’t king George divorce his catholic wife and thus separated Britain from the church? Perhaps they had an anthem or prayer before that time? In Catholic schools here, they pray in the morning…in Quebec, we did not pray in the public school, obviously and neither did we sing o Canada cause u think Quebec still hates Canada and didn’t want to give Canada any satisfaction. We would have probably sung a Quebec song if they had one.

    1. There was me thinking you all sang “Alouette” while you worked! That would be Henry VIII you’re thinking of, George was either mad or a stutterer, or unfortunate enough not to have a movie made about him, depending on which of the six you chose! And it takes 2 cups of tea before I’m up and running in the morning, 3 if it’s Ceylon! I went to a convent school so praying featured heavily on the syllabus!

  6. I’m arriving late to the conversation, but I would say the playing of the national anthem in schools is an attempt at building a Canadian identity and a sense of loyalty to Canada. Canada has always been a country of immigrants, so the anthem, and all of the multicultural training we receive in school is actually kind of crucial in terms of encouraging everyone to get along and to remind us of shared values.

    As a teacher, it’s a fabulous ritual from a purely pragmatic standpoint. Efficient use of class time is all about routine, and this is a great way to get students to settle in for the start of the day without the teacher having to speak a word. It refocuses students and forces them to be still at the start of the day. Canadian kids have a Pavlovian response to this ritual that is highly useful to teachers!

  7. in canada we Stan En Guard, hands at our sides in fists just like a soldier, we dont put our hands over our hearts or salute.

  8. Protocol for O Canada is to stand still and sing, not listen, but join in and sing to the best of your ability in the language of your choice, whether at a sporting event, school assembly, remembrance ceremony or where ever the anthem is played. Also, at the conclusion of the anthem you do not clap or cheer, to do so is bad form.

  9. I was genuinely surprised by this when confronted with the ritual today. I was chastised for a) walking my son to his class during the anthem ( I wasn’t aware of the requirement to stand still, but even more unexpected was the hat removal requirement. The teacher informed me as if I should have known. Except that as an expat Australian and Briton, it would have never occurred to me. It really does seem to be a relic in this modern age. I think we can show respect for our fellow Canadians with real acts of respect and not through enforced patriotic rtiuals. Indifference to anthems and flags might actually be a good thing in this age of anger and division.

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