Taking a stand by taking a seat: First Nations student reprimanded after not standing for O Canada

·5 min read
Skyla Hart, 15, was escorted out of class by a teacher for choosing not to stand during the national anthem. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)
Skyla Hart, 15, was escorted out of class by a teacher for choosing not to stand during the national anthem. (Tyson Koschik/CBC - image credit)

A Winnipeg high school student who was reprimanded and removed from class over her decision not to stand during the national anthem hopes talking about the situation sparks change and awareness.

Each morning, when O Canada plays over the speakers at River East Collegiate, 15-year-old Skyla Hart remains seated.

"This country is a colonized country and I don't want to stand for a colonized country," Skyla said. "People always say, like, it was a long time ago, [but] we're still … going through it — all the trauma from it."

It's a decision she said she made in Grade 5 to honour her Cree and Ojibway ancestors and her culture, as well as to recognize ongoing injustices Indigenous people face.

The Grade 10 student said the choice not to stand hasn't been a problem — until this fall.

First, Skyla said she was pulled out of class one day by a teacher after refusing to stand for the anthem. She was told to stand in the hallway, she said, but "I would still be standing for O Canada if I stand in the hallway, so I chose to sit down in the hallway."

That's when another teacher came by and yelled at her to get up, she said. She returned to class when the anthem was over.

"It made me feel upset, angry," Skyla said. "The teacher kept on telling me she respected what I do. But if she respected me, she wouldn't have pulled me out of class to stand in the hallway."

A few days later, Skyla said she was reprimanded again on her way to class; when O Canada began to play and she kept walking, a teacher popped out of another classroom and got angry with her for not stopping.

Once she arrived to her classroom, Skyla said the teacher wanted her to stand in the hallway until the anthem finished.

"I went in and sat down respectfully," she said. "I don't think it's right for me to stand in the hallway."

End anthem in schools, mother says

Skyla's mother says the situation is upsetting, but she's not surprised by it.

"To me, this is just an extension of residential school. We're still oppressing our children," who are not able "to practise who they are," said Raven Hart.

She said she is proud of Skyla for having the courage to take a seat — and a stand — against the treatment of Indigenous people.

Tyson Koschik/CBC
Tyson Koschik/CBC

Indigenous people across Canada still face injustices, Hart said, ranging from microaggressions when they walk into stores to the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

The family knows the painful legacy of Canada's residential school system first-hand.

Raven Hart is a residential school survivor herself, attending her last three years of high school at the Lebret Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan before it closed in the 1990s. Her mother, Lyna Hart, was also a residential school survivor.

No child should have to rise for O Canada in school, said Hart, noting she would like to see an end to the national anthem in schools altogether.

"Everything that O Canada stands for is a lie.… [Canada] was built on, you know, the demise of Indigenous people" and displacement "from their lands, from their language and their culture," said Hart. "We really need to recognize that."

Skyla met with the school's principal last week after teachers reported what had happened. Hart said she was troubled that Skyla was portrayed as acting defiantly, instead of being viewed with compassion for her decision.

Skyla said the principal understood "where I was coming from and he was very respectful," adding that he invited her to help improve awareness and elevate Indigenous experiences in the school.

The teen plans to take him up on that offer. "We need to be recognized more in the community," Skyla said. "I would really like the opportunity to educate my school."

Division offers 'complete support'

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the River East Transcona School Division, which oversees River East Collegiate, said it offers "complete support" to the student.

The division's Indigenous academic achievement staff, along with elders and knowledge keepers, will be "working with River East Collegiate to build staff capacity knowledge," the spokesperson said.

Raven Hart said the school principal also reached out to her to express support for Skyla.

She said she will be satisfied when she sees action, including the creation of more Indigenous programming and language education, as the division currently offers language classes only in English, French and German.

"When a child walks into a school and sees nothing that reflects them, it's like … looking into a mirror and seeing no reflection," Hart said.

Further, as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches, Hart said she hopes people take time on Sept. 30 to learn.

"Utilize that day to really educate yourselves on what has happened to Indigenous people and why things are the way they are," she said.

Skyla said O Canada would need to be reinvented before she could stand up for it.

"I want them to bring up all the trauma that we've been through," she said. "And that we're warriors."

The teen also encourages Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to take action in their own schools when the anthem plays.

"Don't be scared to sit down," she said.

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