Nelly Furtado performed a unique version of Canada’s national anthem during 2016’s NBA All-Star Game and wound being attacked on social media for her rendition, which saw her accompanied by Native American flutist Tony Duncan.
While some people praised her take on “O Canada” that integrated First Nations culture into Canada’s national anthem, many more took to social media to express opinions ranging from outrage to puzzlement.
A year later, the Victoria, B.C.-born singer is addressing the controversy in an essay she wrote for Jezebel, titled, “After ‘O Canada’, An Unexpected Letter Taught Me A Valuable Lesson About Xenophobia.”
She writes that following the performance, on her way home from the venue she “checked Twitter and noticed my name was trending. Tens of thousands of tweets from strangers poured into my feed: words of hostility, praise, ignorance, kindness, and nothing in between. Annoyed and tired, I went home to bed, but woke up the next morning trying to make sense of the frenzy. I noticed that a semi-famous male sportscaster had sent out a sexist and mental-health marginalizing tweet which started the windfall. In his tweet, he wondered if I was having a ‘breakdown‘ and said that it was the ‘worst anthem he had ever heard.'”
Furtado admits that she felt “mortified and angry — until it got worse. As I read the feed, I realized that my performance had become some kind of lightning rod. This was not just about melodies and vocals. The real buttons of hate that I had pushed seemed to stem from a veiled xenophobia in my country and beyond. As a first-generation Portuguese Canadian female, I was officially ‘the other,’ and not entitled to express my ‘O Canada’ with artistic nuance or intimacy.”
What hurt the most, however, was a tweet that simply read: “Go back to Portugal.”
“The words stung like salt,” Furtado writes. “When I read this hateful tweet, I realized that my ‘Child of Immigrants Citizenship’ was somehow less Canadian.”
It wasn’t until months later that Furtado received a letter from a Grade 6 teacher, Craig Perry. “He had played a recording of my version of ‘O Canada’ for the students who had not watched the game or had not heard about the controversy. They discussed some of the tweets and comments and they thought it was very unfair. They reflected on the comments and found them particularly ‘mean spirited, rude, and disrespectful.’ They had made Tony and I beautiful, handmade cards to let us know that they liked our version, and to remind us not to listen to the ‘bullies’ and the ‘mean’ people.”
After reading the letters, Furtado reveals “I broke into tears of relief and promised myself and my daughter that I would visit those students and thank them in person.”
In her article, Furtado recalls visiting the school and meeting the students, performing “O Canada” for them and coming away with something of an epiphany.
“Xenophobia, which is rooted in ignorance, has an enemy called love, which is truly intelligent,” she writes. “This experience galvanized my belief that compassion lives inside each and every one of us. ‘GO BACK TO PORTUGAL’ hit me where it hurt. It spiralled me right back to my kindergarten playground where I was the only ethnic minority in my entire class. I never thought that a few wise, beautiful children at another playground some 30 years later would end up healing that wound completely.”