Our country has progressed. Our national anthem should too.
Yesterday, Canada’s House of Commons gave its final vote of approval to Bill C-210. This was a private members bill introduced by MP Mauril Bélanger. This bill proposes that the line “in all thy sons command” be changed to “in all of us command“, making the English lyrics of the national anthem gender neutral.
Changing the lyrics has ignited a debate, between those supporting an updated, gender-neutral version, vs. those who favour the traditional version. The debate is not new. Bélanger first introduced his gender inclusive anthem bill in 2014. It’s far from the first time the lyrics have changed.
First written in 1880, the anthem has undergone numerous changes. In fact, the English version we sing today is virtually unrelated to the original lyrics of Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier (who wrote in French – “Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!”), and the first 1901 English version written by Thomas B. Richardson. The musical melody, of course, has stayed true to French-Canadian composer Calixa Lavallée.
There is a full account of the evolution of “Oh Canada” in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Today’s version, which was passed by the National Anthem Act, 1980, made official the version written by Robert Stanley Weir, and contained the line, “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” This reflects an update in 1914, which presumably (though no one really knows for sure) was intended to instill patriotism in the young men serving in WWI.
So, why change now? Men and women are equal. Our language should reflect this. “Policemen” and “firemen” are now police officers and fire fighters. “Chairmen” are now Chairs”. “Stewardesses” are now flight attendants.
A national anthem that sings only about “sons” institutionalizes outdated language. Calling it “tradition” doesn’t make it right. Changing one word, and singing “in all of us command”, is gender neutral. This update in no way detracts from the original intentions of the lyrics, or strays from Canada’s tradition of a fair and inclusive country.
Recognizing the equal role of women today
There is another issue here. Over 60,000 Canadians died serving in WWI, and over 170,000 were wounded. Virtually all were men (the exception were 50 female nurses who lost their lives). Women were not permitted to be employed by the military until 1965.
The sad truth is the Canadian military was conspicuously slow to embrace gender equality. Women were not even allowed into military colleges until 1970. Even though the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms outlawed discrimination of women, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Canadian Air Force opened all positions to females.
We can see why the 1914 lyrics referred to “sons”, as heartbroken Canadian families lost thousands of sons in the fight for European freedom. But let’s not forget that women were literally treated as 2nd class citizens in 1914 – women did not even get to vote until 1917. But we’ve changed. Today Canada is a world leader in terms of the proportion of women in its military. Our country has progressed. Our national anthem should too.
– Mike Chopowick, June 11, 2016 –