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O Canada! - Moving aside the sacred cows

They may ultimately just be words, but as a whole they maintain significance for all of us in celebrating our country.

maple leaves

Starting with my first day in kindergarten, my classmates and I stood every morning to sing the national anthem. It became part of my routine, our ritual, but one which I never actually reflected upon until now.

In June, The House of Commons passed Bill C-210, which changes the second line of the English anthem from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command,” to make it more gender-neutral.

The English version was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, a Montreal lawyer, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Quebec City. And he did not write it in stone – Weir himself changed the words of his anthem, adding “in all thy sons command” in 1914. Weir’s changes were made against the backdrop of World War I, but potentially also in opposition to women’s suffrage. In other words, “in all thy sons command” was deliberately added to exclude women from Canadian notions of nationalism.

In the midst of a debate around traditionalism, the changes made in C-210, ironically, return the lyrics to the original.

The French version of the anthem had been in place a full century before the English version became official with the National Anthem Act of 1980. Before Weir’s 1908 version, there had been 40 other English versions used across Canada. There have been multiple attempts to change the words since, including a modification in 1968. Not much of a tradition.

The Bloc Quebecois abstained from the vote on C-210, stating that the issue had little to do with them. But their turn might be coming next.

The French version has remained exactly the same since Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a Quebec judge originally from a small town east of the Ottawa River, wrote them in 1880. It ducks the gender debate largely as a function of French grammar.

The words of the French anthem still reflect a paradigm of the 19th century, including allusions to militant Christian crusades: “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée, Il sait porter la croix!” The extended French original went even further, with several references to Christ in its closing.

The anthem, as a symbol, is less important in all public opinion polls than even our flag or the Charter. The invocation of a national symbol which uses such specific religious references may, however, violate that more important symbol, our Constitution.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal’s decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), stating that the invocation of a Christian prayer at the start of a municipal meeting violated state neutrality. It rejected the Quebec Court of Appeal’s analysis that the duty of neutrality is complied with in conjunction with history, tradition, and religious heritage. The appropriate approach to public prayer, according to the high court, is inclusion of all beliefs, including the lack of religion itself.

This trend is mirrored in Ontario, where the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s new policy on creed highlights that freedom of religion now more importantly includes freedom from religion. The fastest-growing demographic in our society in 2016 is Canadians indicating no particular religious belief, or atheism.

The Tribunal in Saguenay focused on public prayer, and did not investigate the issue of the Sacred Heart statue and the crucifix in city chambers. However, subsequent litigation may find they are not, as some have argued, simply works of art that devoid of religious connotation, and also violate state neutrality. The prominent crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly is also likely to attract further scrutiny. In a modern democracy, considering and reconsidering the nature of our symbols should be perceived as a healthy exercise. 

There is nothing sacrosanct in the precise words of our national anthem. They may ultimately just be words, but as a whole they maintain significance for all of us in celebrating our country. Those celebrations should be inclusive to us all, even if it does mean modifying the content of that anthem yet again.

With Bill C-210, we changed our national anthem to include women, as well as men. Next, perhaps, we’ll change it further to include the rest of Canada.