It’s no wonder that somebody finally drew the country’s attention to the fact that the English version of the national anthem discriminates against half the population. The wonder is that it took so long.
For more than 70 years now, English-speaking Canadians have been mindlessly asking in song that their country command true patriot love "in all thy sons," but not its daughters.
Taking advantage of the annual midsummer news shortage, a women’s organization called the Famous Five Foundation (named for early 20th-century women’s-rights activists) launched a campaign to change the offending line in O Canada.
Senator Vivienne Poy announced she will introduce a bill to make the change, and if the Senate passes it, a Liberal member of Parliament, John Godfrey, said he will introduce a similar bill in the House of Commons.
The bill would change the last five words of the line "True patriot love in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command" or "in all our lives command." It’s understandable that Robert Stanley Weir’s original words ignored women since he wrote them in 1908, a decade before Canadian women would begin to acquire the right to vote (though obviously, he was not in the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement that was already gathering strength).
But Parliament had no such excuse in more enlightened 1980 for not making the words more inclusive when it officially proclaimed O Canada the national anthem. Parliament wasn’t reluctant to tinker with Weir’s words ; for aesthetic reasons, it reduced the number of repetitions of the words "stand on guard" in the last five lines of the anthem from five to three.
Nor was it unprecedented for Parliament to make major changes in Canada’s national symbols to make them less exclusionary in keeping with the country’s evolution. In 1965, it adopted the current flag, replacing the British-inspired Red Ensign on which the Union Jack figured prominently. That change was very controversial at first but has since proven successful. But while Parliament changed some of the words of O Canada in 1980, it left untouched the line "in all thy sons command," and, for that matter, the one describing Canada as "our ... native land," which leaves out Canadians who were born elsewhere.
The English version of the anthem is not the only one of our symbols that could stand to be made more inclusive. There is no apparent movement to change the French, original version of O Canada, written in 1880 by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, although it describes Canada as the "land of our forefathers," which, like the English version’s "native land," excludes immigrants, not to mention our foremothers. And its lines "As is thy arm ready to wield the sword,/So also is it ready to carry the cross" make it sound as though Canada has a state religion.
But it is not only some of the symbols of Canada that are due for change. If Quebec is serious about its own inclusiveness, then it should follow the example set by Parliament in 1965 and adopt a new flag.
The current fleurdelise was officially adopted by the Duplessis government in 1948. Its design is made up entirely of symbols of France, just as that of Canada’s former flag was dominated by those of Britain. The Quebec flag’s blue and white colours, cross and fleur-de-lis in each corner were all inspired by flags and symbols of the old French regime that ruled what now is Quebec prior to the British Conquest.
To begin with, the cross or any other symbol of a particular religion is not appropriate on the flag of a country or province that does not favour one religion over other beliefs (and non-beliefs). Beyond that, the other symbols suggest that Quebec’s history truly began with the arrival here of the French and that it is only their descendants who truly matter, not those of anyone who settled here before or after them.
The flag symbolizes a Quebec that is and never has been anything but French, not so much linguistically as ethnically. It does not represent either Quebec’s real composition or its professed inclusiveness.