Opinion: O, Canada – An Anthem Stuck in the Past

Jennifer Mutton

The City of Toronto’s Executive Committee recently indefinitely deferred a motion that would have asked the federal government to consider changing the English version of Canada’s national anthem to make it more gender inclusive by replacing the words “all thy sons command” with “all of us command.” In the federal arena, MP Mauril Bélanger introduced Bill C-624 into the House of Commons back in September. If passed, the legislation would officially replace the gendered words with the original unisex lyrics.

Bill C-624 is the tenth such bill to be introduced since 1980, meaning that history does not bode well for its success. It is set to be debated in March and is widely expected to die the same quick death that many private member’s bills do. In 1986, a Progressive Conservative Senator named Howard Crosby tried to introduce a bill that would replace “thy sons” with “of us,” but the bill died two years later. The same bill was re-introduced in 2002 by Senator Vivienne Poy, and met the same end.

O Canada has also been criticized over time for proclaiming Canada to be our “home and native land.” In 1990, Toronto city councillors voted to recommend to the federal government that this line be changed to “our home and cherished land” out of concern that the lyrics were exclusionary to Canadian immigrants, who are not native-born citizens. The recommendation was no more than a symbolic gesture, and the federal government took no action in response.

There has also been some debate around another exclusionary line of the anthem that would certainly seem to violate the tenets of a multicultural and inclusionary society: that of “God keep our land glorious and free.” With about 24 per cent of Canadians identifying as having no religious affiliation, the reference to God — and a particular, Abrahamic God at that — would seem out of sync with many Canadians’ beliefs.

Despite these growing patterns of debate, the Department of Canadian Heritage has stuck by the English version of our national anthem, maintaining that it is “a source of national pride.” In a particular display of wily political misdirection, the Department has also noted that their actual focus “is on the economy, jobs, and protecting Canadian families.” In other words: why do you care about something so petty as a national anthem? We’ve got mouths to feed!

But it is clear that many Canadians today do not identify with the anthem that is supposed to be the formal articulation of our country’s spirit. At best, O Canada is representative of a religious, Canadian-born man. So perhaps it really is time for a change – even despite the unlikelihood of such a change ever originating in Ottawa. Citizens can get involved with the Sing All of Us campaign, which aims to make the anthem gender-inclusive by promoting Bill C-624. You could also start proudly singing your own (gender-inclusive, secular, or inclusionary) version of O Canada overtop of the existing one, as Toronto city councillor Ceta Ramkhalawansingh has done for years. But why not go further? Why not make a wholesale change to the entire tired text?

For those who may fear change, or who cite the importance of historical and cultural verisimilitude, remember that O Canada only became the country’s official national anthem in 1980. Prior to that, it was only unofficially considered our anthem, and went through several incarnations. Calixa Lavallée composed the music in 1880, and Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier penned the accompanying French lyrics that remain today. But our English lyrics took a while to become canon. A Toronto doctor, a Vancouver bank manager, and an earnest housewife named Mercy all penned alternate versions of O Canada before a judge named R. Stanley Weir wrote the 1908 poem, whose first stanza would later become our English anthem.

See the whole poem here, if you like. After perusing the many historical versions of O Canada, I have a modest proposal: scrap the controversial lyrics and look to Weir’s original poem for a replacement anthem.

His first verse is our traditional anthem, with a few changes here and there (his version, curiously, makes no mention of God — that was added later by a parliamentary committee). The third verse references “stalwart sons and gentle maidens,” which does not jibe with a Canada that eschews gender stereotyping. The fourth verse has a few issues too, namely that it addresses the entire verse to the “Ruler Supreme,” and sends us right back into the religion debate.

Weir’s second stanza, however, is perfect; and it comes from his original poem, so you can’t complain about compromising any sort of historical integrity. It keeps the best parts of the existing anthem, while excising the contentious references to gender, religion, and native land:

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea,
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!

What is there not to love about an anthem that secularly worships Canadian nature? One that manages to praise national symbols and survey a diverse swathe of regions? It is, in many ways, the poetic version of the Canadian tourism ads that still permeate our airwaves and television screens in 2015.

Better yet, Weir’s second stanza paints a picture of Canada that all of us wish were true: a land of opportunity, a beautiful basket of multicultural dinner rolls, with hope abound that inter-generational social mobility will propel their children into the middle class. Is this not the platform of every politician promising the Canadian dream? Should this anthem not be playing in the background of election ads for the upcoming federal campaign?

And then there’s Weir’s chorus. He may have run out of new words, repeating “O Canada” a few times until the anthem ends. But there is no mention of religion or God, and can you not just imagine the insane din of a hockey arena building up to the final line, cresting in a crescendo of O Canada?

O Canada!
O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

Unfortunately, recent attempts to change the our anthem’s lyrics, seen in both municipal and federal arenas, will likely come to naught, stopped in their tracks by a misplaced respect for outdated lyrics. But if the Sing All of Us movement gains momentum, or similar efforts on the part of other Canadian interest groups grow, then Ottawa may eventually consider changing O Canada to an anthem more fitting of our diverse, modern population. Until then, consider mumbling your own inclusionary version of the anthem the next time you sing it — in either official language.

Jennifer Mutton is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from McGill University. Jennifer is particularly interested in policy issues related to international trade, social programs, and the labour market.