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Grade 7 student Prabhleen Toor, right, and Kindergarten Punjabi bilingual program teacher Sheena Gurm are pictured at the Amber Trails Community School on Dec. 22 in Winnipeg. The school’s school choir performance of a Punjabi-English rendition of O Canada before a Winnipeg Jets game garnered mixed reactions.Phil Hossack/The Globe and Mail

As she stood facing the thousands of spectators in the daunting downtown Winnipeg arena, it felt as though the weight of the entire world was on 10-year-old Simrat Gill’s shoulders.

She knew every word to the song by heart. From morning assemblies and lunch-break runs to after-school sessions and band recitals, she’d been practising for months. Her dad kept telling her how proud he was. Even the last-minute changes didn’t bother her too much. And yet, deep in her head, a nagging thought made Simrat nervous: Would everybody be happy about this?

The Grade 5 student, along with her 18-member choir from Amber Trails Community School in the city’s northwest region, was about to sing a Punjabi-English rendition of the Canadian national anthem.

“We were making history,” she said.

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The 18-member choir from Amber Trails Community School in the Winnipeg's northwest region sings a Punjabi-English rendition of the Canadian national anthem before the puck drops on Dec. 16.Supplied

On Dec. 16, before the puck was dropped to kick off a Winnipeg Jets clash against the Colorado Avalanche, the uniquely bilingual version of O Canada was performed publicly for the first time.

Until that Saturday night, that had never happened at an NHL game or at any other professional sporting event.

At least a million viewers watched the TV broadcast. Within hours, viral snippets of the performance were shared around the world.

Laudatory remarks came flooding in. Simrat’s fellow chorist, 12-year-old Prabhleen Toor in Grade 7, said dozens of sports fans loudly congratulated her when she made her way back to her family in the stands at Canada Life Centre. Choir teacher Sheena Gurm immediately started getting messages of support, with many telling her they cried seeing the kids so confident in their mother tongue.

But the children’s performance also stirred a litany of intense, negative reactions.

Some people felt disrespected by the modification of an anthem dating to 1880. Others questioned what Punjabi had to do with hockey. A small number veered straight to xenophobia.

“There is something we have to understand here,” said Dorian Morphy, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the company that owns the Winnipeg Jets and arranged the show. “Anytime you’re setting off to do something big and potentially momentous, you’re going to get pushback.”

Mr. Morphy believes a majority of the negative reactions stemmed from the short clips on social media, which missed the broader context. “If you were in the arena that night, you’d know how special this was,” he said.

The origin of the performance dates, in many ways, to February.

For Amber Trails principal Navjeet Kambo, it began that month when she was approached by local school district superintendent Brian O’Leary. “He told me there was a big need and demand from the local community for a Punjabi bilingual program,” Ms. Kambo said.

She wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. Newcomer families, she has observed, want their kids to be schooled in English. In her experience, even in their home countries, parents almost exclusively send children to predominantly English-speaking schools.

But Ms. Kambo gave it a shot, holding an open house in the spring to explore the idea. “The response was overwhelming,” she said.

In September, Amber Trails offered Manitoba’s first Punjabi education curriculum, open to anyone who wanted to learn the language.

“Originally, we thought it would be a half-time thing for kindergarten, then maybe Grade 1 later,” Ms. Kambo said. “We ended up having three fully filled kindergarten cohorts and two Grade 1 classes, with 24 or so students in each.”

At around the same time Ms. Kambo was planning her open house, the Jets, on Feb. 11, were holding their inaugural South Asian heritage night.

The event showcased local food vendors, musicians, dancers and a modified version of the team’s logo created by graphic designer Charmi Sheth. When this season’s South Asian night was set, the company – inspired by an Ojibway performance of O Canada in early 2020 – planned its Punjabi version.

“The reality is, for a long time, hockey has not been very representative of our shifting demographics in Canada,” Mr. Morphy said.

Punjabi became the fourth-most-spoken language in Canada in 2022, trailing just behind Mandarin, with English and French at the top. According to Statistics Canada, at least 520,000 people in the country speak the Indo-Aryan language, a jump of 49 per cent between 2016 and 2021.

In Manitoba, Punjabi comes right after Tagalog, which is the province’s third-most-spoken language because of a significant Filipino population. More than 62,000 people out of the nearly 750,000 that live in Winnipeg identify as South Asian, statistics show.

Hockey has become so popular with Punjabi-speaking Canadians over the past few years, that it led to the creation of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition.

About a week before the performance, things took a turn.

Simrat, Prabhleen and the rest of the kindergarten-to-Grade-8 choir were left frustrated when, at the 11th hour, they were told the lyrics were changing.

The children had been relying on a Punjabi translation of O Canada commissioned in 2017 by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the 150th anniversary of Confederation. But when Ganni Maan, a community adviser for True North, heard their rehearsals, he told them it wasn’t good enough.

“It needed to be perfect,” Mr. Maan said. “We needed to be as close to the original, beautiful version of our patriotic song as possible.”

True North then engaged Punjabi scholars and elders from Patiala, India and Burnaby, B.C. A new version was finalized just days before the show.

Honey-voiced classical singers Simer Kaur Sethi and Harman Ghuttora would vocally assist the performance. Kiranpal Kaur Sroay would play the taus, a peacock-shaped resonator native to one of the 10 Gurus of Sikhism. The three-stringed sarangi would be strummed by Gurjodh Singh.

It wasn’t particularly cold on that mid-December night, especially by Winnipeg standards. But Prabhleen had chills at the microphone.

Her teeth chattering, nerves hanging in the air, wearing the blue, white and red jersey, she chanted quietly to calm herself: “Jets game, Jets game, Jets game. I’m singing for the Jets.”

Simrat, on the other hand, channelled her inner pop diva. As the announcers cued the choir, she stayed focused. “Haters gonna hate,” she shrugged, like a mini Taylor Swift. “I kind of just decided to tune out all the other stuff that wasn’t really that important.”

A few hours later, the Jets defeated the Avalanche 6-2.

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