Don't like the 'O Canada' change? 'Everyone would've rejected' Canada's first anthem

The Senate of Canada passed a bill Wednesday that would see the words to “O Canada” change from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Photo from Getty Images.
The Senate of Canada passed a bill Wednesday that would see the words to “O Canada” change from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Photo from Getty Images.

Canada is one step closer to having a gender-neutral national anthem, but not everyone’s on board.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill that would see the words to “O Canada” change from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” The only thing left for this tweak to become law is the formal step of royal assent from the Governor General.

The bill was first introduced as a private member’s bill by former Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, and was passed by the House of Commons in 2016. Bélanger died months after he brought the bill forward and never got to see his dream of a gender-neutral anthem become a reality.

The bill had been toiling in the Senate for 18 months before it was finally passed. Independent Ontario Sen. Frances Lankin made the controversial motion to end debate and forced a vote on the issue.

The bill’s passage made international headlines. It also got the attention of both traditionalists and progressives on social media, who appeared equally passionate about the change.

Jane Moss, the former director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Duke University, told Yahoo Canada she’s “absolutely astonished” to hear that some people are unhappy with the change.

“It just seems to me logical and normal that it should be changed,” Moss said. “To me, it just seems inoffensive.”

There is an argument to be made for the preservation of history. This is an anthem that Canadian school children have been singing for decades. It is performed at sporting events all over the world and the words have become a part of the Canadian identity.

Not everyone felt like the lyrics favoured one gender over another. Conservative Sen. Denise Batters told Yahoo Canada that the words were never an issue for her.

“I’m personally opposed to changing the anthem because I think that it was a historical piece and I have never, as a woman, felt excluded from my national anthem,” the senator from Saskatchewan said. “But the main reason I opposed it was this is what people are telling me.”

A 2016 Forum Research survey completed for the Toronto Sun determined half of the 1,429 Canadians polled disapproved of changing the words to “O Canada” and only 35 per cent supported it. A 2013 Forum Research survey reported by the Toronto Star suggested 65 per cent of the 1,484 people surveyed were against the change. A 2001 Globe and Mail-CTV poll of 1,000 Canadians found 77 per cent of respondents did not want to see the anthem changed.

Moss says the tweak is important because it represents inclusion for the half of the country’s population excluded by the word “sons.”

Batters disagrees with the idea that women have been excluded by the lyrics. Put simply, she says she didn’t think there was a need to make this change, especially without more substantive debate in the Senate.

‘It just seems normal’

The mention of “God” in the lyrics doesn’t bother Moss as much, citing the role of religion in Canada’s cultural history.

“You don’t want to declare yourself an atheistic country but you do want to declare yourself an inclusive country,” she said.

“I’m just astonished that your Conservatives would make such a big deal about this — it just seems normal.” Moss added. “It’s not just conservative, it’s reactionary.”

Batters says she’s just trying to represent her constituents and their wishes as best as she can. And while she admits not all members of the Conservative caucus were opposed to the anthem change, she argues there’s more important issues to deal with.

“As a woman, I’m much more concerned about having democracy curtailed instead of having two words changed,” she said in a thinly-veiled shot at Lankin’s move to kill debate on the issue.

“The important thing to do is to reflect on what I was hearing in my province,” Batters asserted. “That’s my most important role,” she added. “This is what people are telling me.”

History of the anthem

“O Canada” was first performed in 1880 after it was written in French by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier and composer Calixa Lavallée, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. It took 28 years for the English version to be written, which was done by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908.

“O Canada” was approved to be Canada’s national anthem in 1967, but it did not officially become the anthem until 1980 under the National Anthem Act.

While the English version has been amended over the years, the French version has remained untouched.

Aside from the melody, the French and English versions are almost nothing alike. Instead of “our home and native land,” the French version says “land of our ancestors.” Instead of “we stand on guard for thee,” the French version says “protect our homes and our rights.”

The French version features the cross and a sword while portraying an “epic narrative” that is “very nationalist” and “very religious” that seeks to preserve the French language and the Catholic faith, according to Moss.

“It’s completely different, it’s not a translation in any way shape or form,” she explained. “If it was a literal translation of the French, everyone would’ve rejected it.”

And yet years later, a part of the previously accepted English version has been rejected by politicians.

For what it’s worth, the English lyrics to “O Canada” was originally gender neutral. In 1908, the line was: “thou dost in us command.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia says the words were changed in 1913, and although no evidence exists to explain why, it took place during a time when only men were fighting in the First World War.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the gender-neutral amendment as “another positive step towards gender equality.”

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