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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

HOT TAKE | Local Music Teacher Sues After Elementary School Calls Song Racist

By Anya Wassenberg on December 11, 2017

Pauline Johnson was born in the mid 1800s in Ontario to a father who was Mohawk and a mother who was English.
Emily Pauline Johnson was born in the mid-1800s in Ontario to a father who was Mohawk and a mother who was English.

Land of the silver birch, Home of the beaver…

The words are familiar to generations of schoolchildren, trotted out with Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds and other Canadiana in elementary schools and summer camps across the country for decades.

Times have changed. Violet Shearer, a music teacher at High Park Alternative Public School, included the song in a school concert in May 2016. About two weeks later, after some parents allegedly expressed concerns, the school’s principal and vice-principal sent out an email to the entire school community denouncing the song, which they called inappropriate and racist. As reported in The Toronto Star, the email claimed, in part, “While its lyrics are not overtly racist…the historical context of the song is racist.”

TDSB (Toronto District School Board) policies and procedures include broad stroke guidelines on matters of inclusion. The onus is placed largely on teachers to negotiate thorny questions such as the legacy of E. Pauline Johnson.

Emily Pauline Johnson’s father was a Mohawk chief and her mother an English immigrant. She learned Mohawk oral traditions alongside English literary classics growing up on the Six Nations reserve near Hamilton, Ontario. When her father died in 1884, she took up writing as a way of helping to support the family.

After publishing a few poems, Johnson developed a live act incorporating poetry and song. During the first half of the show, she was dressed as a proper British young lady. For the second, she donned a Mohawk princess costume. The act was a success, and she toured Canada, the US, and England for about 17 years, publishing several volumes of poetry, along with YA adventure stories. Johnson was a working writer and performer, in other words. Did she tailor her pieces to her largely non-First Nations audiences? You bet.

That’s why, these days, her literary legacy is open for debate. Johnson wrote about her dual heritage in some of her poems, though critiques of her work have noted the fact she used European musical and literary forms. She’s been accused of being derivative, and her authenticity as a voice of the First Nations has been put into question.

Commentators in the Star report, including Terri Monture, a blood relative of Johnson’s from the Six Nations, agreed that the characterization of her work as racist and inappropriate is somewhat extreme.  Are the works of an artist and entertainer who was just trying to turn a buck — and one who was trying to rep a biracial identity more than a century ago when such definitions didn’t even exist — to be entirely dismissed as racist? And who gets to decide?

Shearer is suing administrators and the school board for $75K for alleged damage to her professional reputation, a claim that the respondents deny.

Here are the lyrics:

Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
Boom de de boom boom, boom de de boom boom
Boom de de boom boom, boom.

Down in the forest, deep in the lowlands
My heart cries out for thee, hills of the north
Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more
Boom de de boom boom, boom de de boom boom
Boom de de boom boom, boom

High on a rocky ledge, I’ll build my wigwam,
Close to the water’s edge, silent and still
Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more
Boom de de boom boom, boom de de boom boom
Boom de de boom boom, boom

Land of the silver birch home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose, wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more
Boom de de boom boom, boom de de boom boom
Boom de de boom boom, boom.

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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