Our national anthem needs revision

By Eric Mathison

“O Canada” has a storied past. Canada’s national anthem was commissioned in 1880 by the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec for that year’s Saint Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony. Some of the English version used today was penned in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, who wrote new lyrics instead of using the French version. Weir’s lyrics were amended twice in the 20th century and the variation, in addition to the French, became Canada’s official national anthem in 1980. People rarely think about it. Besides hockey games and Remembrance Day it rarely gets played, and even then it isn’t sung with much gusto.

In the speech from the throne last week, Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s Governor General, announced that a committee would be formed to consider rewording a portion of “O Canada.” The line, “True patriot love in all thy sons command,” is problematic. For one thing, it is factually incorrect. Canada may inspire some men to be truly patriotically in love with it, but not all (The “true” was taken from a Tennyson poem; it means faithful or loyal). The bigger problem is that it leaves out more than half of the population of Canada. Presumably Canada’s daughters should be allowed to love and feel faithful and patriotic towards it. The line as is suggests that women can’t feel emotion or that Canada doesn’t command it.

The prime minister chooses the Governor General and also tells her what to say in the speech from the throne. We could save a lot of time if we cut out the middle-women (in this case Jean and Queen Elizabeth, whom she represents) and cut to Harper’s views on this matter. It certainly seemed like a waste of time when he repealed the committee announcement, stating that Canadians don’t want the anthem changed.

This might be true. There are a lot of Canadians who don’t care; many who do care think that the anthem should be kept the same because it reflects the values of Canadians. Tradition, after all, shouldn’t be messed with, they say. Besides, everyone knows that “sons” refers to both genders, it’s just that people wrote differently back in 1880.

But for all its charms, the anthem should be revised. The half-serious issue I mentioned about ambiguity is important, because we should write (and sing) what we mean and we mean that men and women are inspired by Canada. I don’t like the line either way — instead of revising it to make it gender neutral we should dump it for something else. (What kind of love is commanded? Is that the kind of love we should want to feel? No.) To start, we should work in some of Weir’s original lyrics, like his line “The land of hope for all who toil, the land of liberty.” That’s a good line.

Of course, what update to an anthem would be complete without getting rid of the references to God? At the time it was assumed that everyone believed in God and they all agreed that it was the same Christian one. Now, it isn’t only atheists who are bothered by the reference, but also polytheists. For monotheists, the lack of identification of which god in particular might cause a stir. Can we accommodate them all? Yes, but the anthem would be made considerably longer, and would include the phrase “or, but not both, unless you’re ‘spiritual,’ not religious” in between every deity name. Hockey would never be the same.

The better option is this: let’s get rid of the divine reference in the anthem. Secularism doesn’t deny a place for religion, instead it promotes neutrality. I can hear the ruckus now: “Canada was founded as a Christian nation! It’s enshrined in our constitution,” and so on. Canada was also founded as a country that only believed in rights for white, Christian men who owned property. Respecting tradition is not the same thing as accepting history’s doctrines. There is still some liberty to toil for.

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