Cree Anthem for Hockey Night in Canada

By Morgan O’Neal

On Saturday, January 27, Akina Shirt, a 13-year-old Alberta girl made history at center ice in Calgary’s Saddledome. In front of hundreds of thousands of Hockey Night in Canada viewers all across the country, the Aboriginal teenager became the first person to ever sing O Canada in the Cree language at a National Hockey League game. She sang to a sold-out crowd in the Saddledome to begin a game which the Calgary Flames eventually went on to win over the Vancouver Canucks 4-3.

Shirt had already gained a local reputation as a lucky charm since she started out singing the anthem in English for the Saddle Lake Junior B Warriors. Every time she has opened a game, the home team has won. Saturday night was the first time she has opened for a professional hockey game.

Akina Shirt, who lives in Edmonton but is originally from the Saddle Lake First Nation about 120 kilometres east of the Alberta capitol, learned the Cree version of the anthem a year ago. “I had to work extra hard in learning the words and practising it and I eventually memorized it and it just comes natural,” she told reporters. The performance was apparently facilitated by the chief of the Saddle Lake First Nation who told the Flames’ front office that they should have her sing the anthem.

What is most important about this obviously newsworthy event though, is that it brings to light the ongoing problem of the slow agonizing death of Indigenous languages in Canada. Although a single performance of the national anthem in Cree will not revive the many Native languages on the verge of disappearance, the inspiring spectacle of a young Aboriginal singer expressing pride in her culture should remind Canadian citizens of all backgrounds that these languages are worth saving.

The fact is that Akina Shirt’s musical effort should only be a beginning. The national anthem should be translated into every available Native tongue and performed at sports events all over this country, at every opportunity. Her brave and triumphant initiative should go down in history as the first of many such performances in the future.