Who gets to see themselves in our national anthem?

Evan Solomon on anthem politics

Kids sing the national anthem with members of team Canada before the first half of the FIFA Women's World Cup round of 16 soccer action in Vancouver on Sunday, June 21, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Kids sing the national anthem with members of team Canada before the first half of the FIFA Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer action in Vancouver on Sunday, June 21, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

From the patriotic cries of outrage, you’d think some secret cabal of politically correct liberal wizards were swapping the words of our national anthem with the lyrics to the Sex Pistols’ punk version of God Save the Queen. The fact is, all Mauril Bélanger’s private member’s bill seeks to change is the line “In all thy sons command” to “In all of us command.” It’s perfectly reasonable, given the fact that more than 50 per cent of the population are not, well, “sons.” The question shouldn’t be “Does it go too far?” It ought to be “While we’re at it, does it go far enough? Why not take the cross out of the French version as well?”

I’ll pause here to let the fumes of fury dissipate.

Tampering with symbols is sensitive work—after all, ideas move more slowly than emotions. We learned that lesson 52 years ago this week, when prime minister Lester Pearson introduced a resolution to change the national flag of Canada. That kicked off six torrid months of what came to be known as the Great Flag Debate.

John Diefenbaker thundered about loyalty to the sacred past, but Pearson faced him down, and instead of calling for a referendum, he struck a committee. Can you hear the little echo bouncing off today’s electoral reform debate? “Striking a Committee” might actually be the name of an advanced Liberal yoga pose. In any case, Diefenbaker countered with his own form of aesthetic political discipline—the filibuster—but failed. We got our new flag. And our heritage didn’t dissolve.

Many of the same flag arguments Dief deployed are being recycled by the so-called anthem originalists. Erin O’Toole, the former Veterans Affairs minister, admitted to me that, yes, the anthem language is antiquated and out of date—I couldn’t get him to use the word sexist—but he argued the anthem as it stands should be a lesson in how far we have come. It strikes me that changing the words would do that far more effectively, but O’Toole believes the text of the anthem is almost sacred, and so should stand as is.

Words matter here, particularly in a debate about words, so tossing around the term “sacred” deserves a moment. Sacred can mean “venerated” or “connected to God,” a definition that veers perilously close to the kind of religiously infused nationalism our secular culture strives to avoid. At best, the anthem qualifies as a form of “civil religion,” a term developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in the 1960s to describe the set of common values and symbols in secular societies that connect us by mirroring religious dynamics. “Holidays” in the U.S., like Memorial Day, become “holy days.”

Even by that definition, sacred is not immutable. The English version of the anthem has a long history of change. While the original tune was composed in 1880 by Calixa Lavallée for a poem that is still the French anthem today, finding the right English words became something of a national hobby. Collier’s magazine held a competition, won by a woman named Mercy E. Powell McCulloch. “O Canada! In praise of thee we sing,” she wrote. It flopped.

New versions kicked around until finally—and here is where I just love our country of peace, order and good government—a lawyer named Robert Stanley Weir penned the final text. A lawyer. Bless us all and govern yourselves accordingly.

But even Weir was open to change. To honour the men going off to fight on the eve of the First World War, Weir changed his original line “Thou dost in us command” to the now controversial “In all thy sons command.” A noble sentiment, perhaps, but the fact is, the original version used the word “us,” which is exactly the word Bélanger wants to use again.

Today, of course, women fight for our country. I can’t help but think of Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first female member of Canada’s military killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2006. Shouldn’t the anthem recognize women who sacrifice their lives for our country, just as it was first changed to honour men?

The response to this question is often that somehow the word “sons” implicitly includes women. This is baffling. I don’t introduce my daughter and son as “these are my two sons” and hope people get it. Let’s not pretend that the past 112 years of repeated usage has changed a definition.

Conservatives who argue there is no burning desire to change the anthem wilfully forget that they floated the idea back in 2010.

Which brings us to the cross. This one has slipped under the radar, even though it remains in the original 1880 French version of the anthem. I recall as a grade-school kid singing the line “Il sait porter la croix” and wondering what that meant for a Jewish kid like me. My own children learned the anthem at a French immersion school. Why are kids in a secular country still singing about the cross? According to the last Stats Can household survey, more than 10 million Canadians don’t identify as Christian. Isn’t it time to take the cross out of the anthem and make us all feel a little more welcome?

Pause again for the “slippery slope” chorus, who complain we’re stripping Canada of our founding identity and ushering in the whitewashed era of politically correct blandness. What’s next: taking out God altogether?

Eventually, maybe we will—are we a secular society or are we not?—although at least the “God” in the anthem is not identified with a specific religion, so all Canadians who practise religion can feel included.

Anthem politics is emotional, but all of us, sons and daughters of all beliefs, ought to be included in something so glorious and free.


Who gets to see themselves in our national anthem?

  1. Well done Mr. Solomon. This is the best piece I have read on this issue.

  2. Thank you!! How about we turn the thinking on its head a bit:

    I use the term “policewoman” because it’s inclusive of both men and women.
    I use the term “camerawoman” because it’s inclusive of both men and women.
    I use the term “firewoman” because it’s inclusive of both men and women.

    Let’s drop the male privilege and get on with being a cohesive country who welcomes all and instills true, patriot love in all of us.

  3. “Thee” was out of use for over a hundred years when “O Canada” was written. I’d prefer if our anthem spoke of Canada in our language.

  4. Yes, let’s remove the word ‘God’ as well.

    From the Constitution too.

    • Politics, being politics, will always co-opt religion, sneak it in, so to speak.

      However, there’s a case to be made for religious people to reclaim their religion and not allow politics to corrupt it.

      It’s not the end of the world if people remove the word ‘God’ from the anthem. It would be better if people would not use words in vain. So, instead of ‘God’ keep our land, what keeps our land? Because certainly, the sentiment surely remains that the land would keep for as long as it will keep, by virtue of the legitimacy of the nation’s authority. And maybe take away a bit of the certainty and change it to “May our land be kept”…

      • WE keep our land….not some invisible deity

        In any case it’s all very tribal and quaint.

  5. Why can’t Ottawa just deal with much more PRESSING issues rather than something a bit on the frivolous side? Doing a better job (better programs) for victims of spousal abuse, better/more affordable childcare, the widening class divide, heck even refugee/immigrant integration into Canadian society (i.e. better funding for job creation and English/French classes. You can’t get a job outside of the community without English and/or French speaking ability. Then there are issues between adult immigrants/refugees and their kids, who will no doubt integrate through school). As a child of immigrants, I know what I’m talking about.

    • You definitely know. That’s why this sleeper issue is important, because it’s about the sense of community that is requisite for a sustainable long-term platform to all the pressing integration issues you so thoroughly summarize above.

  6. Perhaps just have the ..”in all thy” line be adjusted to include every aggrieved group on the planet,though it might be a bit musically clumsy, then everyone can feel better.

    Or perhaps we can just start our sports contests and other events with a two minute silence contemplating our crimes against the planet. That’s nice and trendy.

  7. Both Mr. Solomon and Conservative MP O’Toole got it wrong. The words of O Canada are neither sexist nor antiquated. They are poetic. It is common in poetic writing to refer to an entire people as the “sons” of a nation. Such language is clearly metaphorical, not meant as a literal description of the country’s population. Removing it from our national anthem for the sake of legalistic literal precision and political correctness is silly. The line “in all thy sons” presents a metaphor of citizens as offspring – a group of people with a blood connection to their nation. It implies that our country is a part of us, just as our biological parents’ DNA is a part of us. It suggests that our country, like a parent, nurtures and shapes us. All that profound meaning is lost if the line is changed to “in all of us”. It is also worth noting that most personifications of nations are female: Lady Liberty (US); Britannia (UK); Canada Bereft; Marianne (France); Europa (EU); Germania; Helvetia (Switzerland); the Maiden of Finland; Mother Russia; etc. Should those symbols also be rendered gender neutral? Of course not. Incidentally, Mr. Solomon, Canada was founded on Christian, not secular, principles. If you remove God and the cross from our anthem, what about the Bible inscriptions in the stone above the Peace Tower’s arched windows, in the Peace Tower carillon’s largest bell, and throughout the Parliament buildings? What about the “Supremacy of God” in the Constitution Act 1982, passed by PM Trudeau Sr.? Of course, we embrace other faiths, but that need not stop us from giving a nod to our roots.

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