Jully Black will sing her modified version of the national anthem on Tuesday at the inaugural graduation ceremony of Toronto Metropolitan University’s first class of law students.
And with the new anthem comes a message — be steadfast in standing up for change, and in yourself, she said.
“It’s great to stop feeling invisible and to be welcomed into a space and asked to contribute to something so beautiful,” she said in an interview with CBC Toronto.
Black’s change to the national anthem was first heard in February at the NBA All-Star game. The Canadian R&B singer and Juno Prize winner changed the first line of the national anthem from “our home and native land” to “our home on native land” to acknowledge the nation’s theft of indigenous land, she said.
The school said it asked Black to perform to reflect the law program’s core values of a commitment to diversity, inclusion and reconciliation following the name change from Ryerson University to Toronto Metropolitan University.
The name changed last spring, as teachers and students had expressed concern for years that the namesake came from Egerton Ryerson, who is considered the architect of the residential school system.
Memory of Black’s mother inspired anthem change
When Black was deciding if she should change the one word to Oh Canada — she said she heard her mother’s voice.
“Practice wisdom, Jully,” she heard her mother say. Though her mother passed away in 2017, Black has worked to attend her classes.
Her mother immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1968 to start a new life, and she was confident in her beliefs. Black remembers her mother leaving a church because members judged Black by her tattoos.
WATCH: Jully Black explains why she changed the national anthem
She knew her mother wouldn’t shy away from what she thought was right. And for Black, that included changing the national anthem.
“So there was no point in exerting any kind of fear. My mom would say, ‘What are you doing?'” Black said.
The ceremony marks the first graduates of the university’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, which began in the fall of 2020.
The school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as evoking Alexander’s namesake, is what encouraged her to perform at the ceremony, she told CBC Toronto.
“As a black native Canadian woman, the ceremony to me shows ‘OK, this is what Canada looks like. Couldn’t look like,'” she said.
Mental health a priority at school, says valedictorian
Safia Thompson, the law school’s first valedictorian, said she is thrilled to speak on the same stage where Black Tuesday will perform.
“I’m thrilled to see a woman of color using art to convey such an important and powerful message,” Thompson said.
Speaking to colleagues from other law schools, Thompson said they don’t get the opportunity to have discussions about diversity, mental health and gender as they do at TMU. While discussions can be challenging at times, students and staff are not afraid to raise those topics, she explained.
“For us, that’s really where the magic happens. That’s where we can learn more about the law and how to serve the diverse community as we go out into the world,” she said.
Donna Young, the school’s founding dean, said the law school has integrated Indigenous laws into its teaching, which is still being worked on.
The Standing Strong Task Force, a group tasked with consulting TMU faculty and students and finding a way forward to confront Ryerson’s legacy in school, recommended incorporating those teachings into the program.
TMU needs to listen to Indigenous faculty
Eva Jewell, an assistant professor of sociology at TMU and the director of research at the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led education center, said she’s a big fan of Black and it’s exciting to have her perform at the school.
While TMU has made some “quite significant efforts” to commit to reconciliation, it needs to make more of an effort to resource Indigenous faculty and be more intentional in integrating Indigenous history and teachings through multiple programs, it said Jewel.
For example, the Yellowhead Institute does not have permanent homes at the school, she said.
There is also resistance to compulsory curricula and the school must face these kinds of challenges, she said.
“There must be attention to the tension we experience in universities,” she said. Consultations are also sometimes held, and indigenous perspectives are still ignored, she said.
The next steps for the school include “adequate resources, support, particularly in senior administrative positions, and listening to the experts, who are the Indigenous faculty,” she said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians – from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.