On February 23, 2015 in the House of Commons, as Liberal Critic for Canadian Heritage, I supported the proposal, put forward in a Bill tabled by Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Bélanger, to slightly change (by two small words) the English wording of our national anthem in order to make it more inclusive of women.
To read my speech, please scroll down.
Enjoy your read!
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House today and, as the Canadian heritage critic for the Liberal party, express my support for Bill C-624, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender), sponsored by our indomitable colleague, the member for Ottawa—Vanier.
It is a seemingly simple bill, perhaps one of the simplest bills we have ever debated in this House. It simply changes two little words in the English version of our national anthem. However, since that change will have immense symbolic significance, we would not expect it to receive unanimous support right away.
I therefore want to examine the arguments made against this bill with an open mind, and demonstrate that they do not outweigh those in its favour.
The bill proposes making the English version of the national anthem gender neutral by changing two little words in one of the verses. Thus, the verse “True patriot love in all thy sons command” would become “True patriot love in all of us command”. They are two small words, “thy sons” to “of us”, but they are an important symbol.
Why change it? It is because the new gender-neutral wording would make Canada’s anthem gender inclusive, thus catching up with the evolution of Canadian society and confirming one of the most important values espoused by Canadians, which is the equality of women and men.
This is the only, but important, purpose of the bill.
Who, then, would want to oppose such a change and why? Do all of us here in the House not support gender equality? Of course we may not always agree on how to promote equality, but I am quite certain that we all agree with the objective.
Moreover, it would be completely unfair to accuse everyone who opposes the bill of also opposing gender equality.
My understanding is that those who disagree with the proposed change argue that O Canada is a historical artifact that must be preserved in its current form for purposes of heritage and historical integrity. They argue that the past has contributed to the Canada of today and serves as an indicator of how far we have come as a society and a nation.
We have to recognize that that is a valid argument. Take the French version of O Canada, for example.
Some might say, and rightly so, that it is not inclusive enough for today’s Canadian society. The French version of the anthem begins with making reference to the land of our ancestors, when the ancestors of many Canadians were not born on this land. It urges us to wear the cross, when many of us are not adherents of the Christian faith.
Nevertheless, in response to those arguments, I think we might say that the beautiful poem written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier in 1880 is part of our heritage and must be respected. It reminds us where we came from and helps us determine together where we want to go.
Let us call it the heritage argument. Today’s Canada was born of yesterday’s Canada and did not come out of nowhere. Our national anthem serves to remind us of that. That argument has merit. By the same token, it is not an absolute. There are other arguments to consider.
When we weigh all sides of the issue, it seems that the small change proposed in Bill C-624 is quite justified. Better still, it is desirable and I have two arguments to back that up.
Firstly, the heritage argument in this specific case supports changing the two words as proposed by Bill C-624. If we look at the heritage side of this matter, then it would be more accurate to say that we are reverting back to the original version rather than making a change.
The original version, written in 1908 by Judge R. Stanley Weir, had “True patriot love thou dost in us command”. The bill proposes returning to this original historical form, though using contemporary English, so it would be “in all of us”.
The English lyrics for O Canada have been amended a number of times since 1908. They were amended in 1913, 1914, 1916, 1927, and 1980. That does not mean they changed these lyrics without very valid justification, but it shows that they are not untouchable, particularly when the proposed amendment would, in one fell swoop, bring our national anthem closer to its original 1908 form.
It also shows that while the words have been amended on various dates, what has stood the test of time is the spirit of patriotism that continues to be embodied by Canada’s anthem and Canadians who rise to sing it.
Secondly, the two-word change proposed in Bill C-624 is not only true to our heritage but it is also likely inevitable. If we do not make that change now, it will be made another time.
It would be better for us to get on the right side of history by making this change ourselves right away rather than leaving it for the legislators of tomorrow to do.
If “thy sons” does not become “of us” today, it will tomorrow.
A similar evolution happened in Austria, where, in December 2011, legislators voted to add three little words to the first verse of their national anthem. Thus “homeland of great sons” became “homeland of great daughters and sons”.
The English lyrics of Canada’s anthem were adopted in 1980. They have been criticized ever since for excluding women, so if we do not fix the problem, the debate can only grow with time. Between 1984 and 2011, no fewer than nine bills have been introduced in Parliament to make these lyrics gender neutral.
Even the current Conservative government, in the 2010 Speech from the Throne, proposed to amend the anthem to make the lyrics gender neutral. It stated, “Our Government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem”. The government supported reverting to the original 1908 poem, replacing the current “in all thy sons command” with “thou dost in us command”. Although the government changed its mind 48 hours later, general support for such a change has only increased since.
In 2013, an online campaign entitled “Restore Our Anthem” was launched to make the English version of the national anthem gender neutral. Prominent Canadians such as Margaret Atwood, Kim Campbell, Vivienne Poy, Nancy Ruth, and Belinda Stronach have lent their support to the campaign.
An increasing number of Canadians are willing to embrace this change because it is so simple and consistent with today’s values of equality.
Choirs and musical groups across the country, such as the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir, the Vancouver Children’s Choir, and the Elektra Women’s Choir, have already taken up the new language. It is inevitable that the words “thy sons” will be replaced with “of us”, if not today, tomorrow.
Therefore, let us support Bill C-624 for all of us. Let us support the small but important change our colleague, the member for Ottawa—Vanier, rightly proposes. Our anthem will thus remain true to its original lyrics and most importantly, true to our daughters and sons both, who equally stand on guard for thee, the true north strong and free.