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Not the first change to national anthem

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Submitted

A law changing the lyrics of “O Canada” to make the song gender neutral is currently awaiting royal assent.

Opposition to the change is almost always premised on the idea that the anthem is somehow sacrosanct. “It should be left as our forefathers intended,” is a common sentiment.

It is a sentiment that demonstrates a profound ignorance of the history of the anthem.

For background, the bill, which passed the Senate a few weeks ago, changes the old line “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” There are complaints that this also doesn’t make sense grammatically, but it does. I will deal with that later.

In short, society changes, the anthem should change to reflect societal changes, and it has been done several times before. In fact, the offending line being addressed in the current legislation is the result of a 1913 change. Prior to that, it was “thou dost in us command,” which is an old-fashioned way of saying “in all of us command.”

Changing the anthem goes all the way back to the early 20th Century. “O Canada” was originally written in French. The first version of English lyrics was not a direct (or even close) translation. And that English version, first performed in 1908, bore almost no resemblance whatsoever to the current version.

Furthermore, “O Canada” did not even officially become the national anthem until 1980. Since then, a dozen bills have been introduced to remove the reference to “sons” because many people, for decades, have thought it exclusionary to half the population.

Society changes. When “sons” was added to the lyrics, women were little more than property; most didn’t even have the right to vote, the exception being widows who owned property.

The law currently before the Queen recognizes this change in society. It is a necessary exercise of modernization.

And it brings up the more egregious problem with the anthem, the reference to “God.”

If at any time we were a Christian nation—and a very good argument can be made that we were—we are no longer. It is not just that only two-thirds of the population now self-identify as Christian and more than a quarter of Canadians say they have no religion. Even if 99 per cent claimed to be Christian, Canada is a modern democracy governed not by simple majority rule, but by rule of law. Rule of law protects minorities from persecution by the majority.

Canada is a secular society, one in which church and state should be mutually exclusive. Although not explicitly laid out in Canada’s Constitution, as recently as 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld separation of church and state when Mouvement laïque Québécois sued the municipal council of Saguenay, Quebec for opening its meetings with a Catholic prayer.

“When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others,” the Court ruled.

If starting a government meeting with a denominational prayer is illegal then surely mentioning God in the legislatively-mandated national anthem must also be illegal.

Getting back to the contention the new line is not grammatically correct, this is a misunderstanding based on verb placement. “True patriot love, in all of us command,” is a poetic way of saying “Command true patriot love in all of us.”

Changing the line “God keep our land glorious and free,” would be as simple as singing “O, keep our land glorious and free,” which harkens to the opening “O Canada.”

Even then it is a terrible line. I have personally never liked the anthem, not just for the specific reasons argued herein, but because it has always sounded contrived and mediocre to me. Perhaps it is time to start over from scratch.

In any event, there is nothing sacrosanct about the anthem. It can and should be changed any time the political will exists to do so.

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