O Canada?

O Canada?

by Nicole Halseth, News Editor 

According to an article on BBC World News, “a group of prominent Canadian women have launched a campaign to make the English-language lyrics to Canada’s national anthem more gender-neutral.”

This push comes after a previous effort by Senator Vivienne Poy to change the lyrics was rejected in 2010 by the Canadian government as led by the Conservative Party. Senator Poy first introduced a bill in Parliament regarding the possibility of revising the lyrics of the national anthem in 2002.  In 2010, Prime Minister Harper consulted with Parliament on the issue of the bill. However, after backlash from the Conservative Party, the bill was dropped.  At the time, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Harper, Dimitri Soudas, claimed “we offered to hear from Canadians on this issue and they have already spoken loud and clear. They overwhelmingly do not want to open the issue.”

The group advocating for this change includes many prominent figures in Canadian society, such as former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, well-known author Margaret Atwood, Senator Nancy Ruth and retired Senator Vivienne Poy. It also includes Sally Goddard, the mother of Nichola Goddard, who was the first female Canadian soldier killed in a combat situation. They are encouraging Canadians to participate in the initiative by appealing to Prime Minister Harper’s government.

Their objection is largely over the line “in all thy sons command.” According to the group, a change to this line in order to make it gender-neutral would better reflect the “the equality of all Canadians.” The group is advocating changing this line to “in all of us command;” a change they say is long overdue. The current official lyrics of O Canada, in Atwood’s opinion, suggest that “only male loyalty is being invoked.” Additionally, in an article on the Globe and Mail website, Ms. Goddard believes altering the lyrics “would recognize the heroes, leaders and teachers who have made Canada what it is today – regardless of their gender.”

This line has already been revised in the past. In 1913, “thou dost in us command” was changed to the current version: “in all thy sons command.” The advocacy group, known as Restore Our Anthem, believes changing it to their proposed version would “have the same meaning” as the original version. On their official website, the group states that “restoring the anthem to reflect its original version is the simplest way to encapsulate the equality of all Canadians.”

Currently, the leader of the opposition in government, Tom Mulcair of the New Democrat Party, has dismissed the new effort to change the lyrics. According to an article on the BBC World News website, Mulcair states that the anthem is “wonderful” as it is, and that “we seem to have agreed on the English and French versions as they are and I think that’s probably a good thing.”

More information about this subject can be found at the Restore Our Anthem website: http://www.restoreouranthem.ca/

This is not the first, and likely will not be the last, time that a group of individuals has wished to change the lyrics of our national anthem to make them more equal and reflective of the current social situation.

Buried within the lyrics of O Canada are more controversial words and phrases that reflect times as they used to be, and not necessarily how they are today. If the effort to change one aspect of our national anthem is undertaken, should it not be expanded to include broader equality issues than just gender equality?

Another issue that has arisen within the discussion of changing our national anthem is the lack of secularism within the lyrics. One of the main groups in this effort is the Canadian Secular Alliance. Though they stand for more than just changing the lyrics to the national anthem, changing the lyrics is one of their core initiatives. According to their official website, the group recommends that “the government should remove the reference to God from Canada’s national anthem, and return to the original words that existed prior to the introduction of the God-reference: “O Canada, glorious and free” instead of “God keep our land glorious and free.”

Their arguments for this are, as seen on their website, “Canada’s national anthem currently invokes the blessing of a deity who is dismissed as non-existent by 1 in 4 Canadians,” and “the mention of God in the anthem is not trivial – it has real social and political consequences.”

Currently, according to the 2001 Census of Canada, 4.8 million Canadians (16.2% of the population) identified with no religion. Since the official census in 1991, this is an increase of 49.3%. Additionally, this group of people identifying as having no religion was the second largest group in Canada, following the Christians and outnumbering all other religious groups. In a poll conducted in May 2008 by Harris/Decima, it was also revealed that that 23% of Canadians in total, and 36% of Canadians under the age of 25, claim they do not believe in any god.

Above and beyond excluding those individuals who claim to have no religion or do not believe in any type of god, the current lyrics also allegedly exclude those with religious affiliations other than Christianity. These groups include Muslims, Jews, traditional Aboriginal religions, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, among many others. Though these groups may not be the documented majority throughout Canada, they are nonetheless vital in their communities and throughout Canada as a whole. As well, in many regions of the country, the majority may actually be something other than Christian. This phenomenon will likely continue to grow as Canada continues to be a settlement destination for individuals from around the world, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many of these individuals will likely wish to express their national pride, as Canadians, in some manner. Indeed, in many cases, it has been shown that those who are not born in a country but come to make it their home often identify very strongly with that national identity.  According to the Alliance, “our national anthem is an important way for Canadians to show pride and respect for their country.” Should individuals and groups be excluded from this because of their differing beliefs?

According to the Canadian Secular Alliance, “Canada’s current national anthem puts a sizeable fraction of the population in a position where showing love for their country also entails invoking a deity whose existence they reject.” Therefore, changing the lyrics would result in the secularization of national pride. It would allegedly allow all Canadians, regardless of religious views, the opportunity to express their patriotism.

There have been many arguments over the years for why the lyrics should remain as they are. Many believe that it is important to keep that historical tie; to give respect to both Canada’s Christian heritage and the many Christian Canadians who contributed to building our country. Many also believe that it would be unprecedented to change the lyrics. However, since the lyrics were first written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, they have gone through numerous alterations. These occurred before the anthem was adopted into the 1980 National Anthem Act. Both Restore Our Anthem and the Canadian Secular Alliance advocate changing certain lines back to the original lyrics, or changing them to better reflect the original lyrics, as they were before adoption into this Act.

Though the English lyrics may include some religious mentions, the French lyrics are much more overtly religious. These can be seen in lyrics like: “as in thy arm ready to wield the sword, so also is it ready to carry the cross”, and “thy valour steeped in faith.” According to the Alliance website, it will take much more to revise the French lyrics because they cannot simply be reverted to the original version, as the English version can. They conclude that “this is a topic for a separate national debate.”

The debate about whether to change the lyrics of O Canada or not goes beyond simply a debate of semantics, and has very real social consequences. At least, it does according to the Canadian Secular Alliance.  On their website, they state that “the mention of God in the anthem is often cited as evidence that Canada is a “Christian nation”, and used to argue for substantive public policies that undermine church-state separation…thus, seemingly “trivial” issues of symbolism have a tendency to become relevant to highly non-trivial debates about government policy.” They conclude that as a liberal democracy and a pluralistic country, Canada’s government should not take an official position on the existence of God, and whether or not organized religion has the right or ability to speak on that God’s behalf. They believe that all of Canada’s public institutions, including the national anthem, should reflect this.