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A new bill would make the Canadian national anthem as feminist as it was in 1908

Reuters/Andy Clark
More than just words
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Earlier this year, liberal Canadian parliament member Mauril Belanger introduced Bill C-624, a piece of legislation hoping to solve once and for all O Canada’s oft-debated gender problem. If passed, the English-language lyrics of my country’s anthem would be subject to a rather subtle amendment: “in all thy sons command” would shift to “in all of us command.” The small tweak would effectively re-introduce gender neutrality to the over 100-year-old song.

Penned by Quebec judge and poet Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, the original lyrics actually read as “thou dost in us command,” that is until he changed them to something more male-focused in 1913. This makes the tiny, two-word edit more throwback than revolution, one that in principle would seem a simple and obvious change.

Not all work dismantling a centuries-old system of gender discrimination has to be dramatic.

“There are many reasons we would want to sing ‘in all of us command,” Belanger told his colleagues. “We love our country and all of its people. Our anthem is important to us, and we want it to clearly include every Canadian.” In advocating for the alteration, MP Stéphane Dion notes that choirs across the country have already adopted the proposed gender neutral version, making the change a way to stay up to date with its progressive citizens.

Referring only to our sons and not our daughters is a problem—this isn’t perceived exclusion, it’s glaring fact. But when it comes to pushback, the issue has historically been less about whether it’s sexist to exclusively refer to boys, and more about whether or not such overt sexism actually matters.

This isn’t the first time our anthem’s sexist implications have come under official scrutiny. In 1990, Toronto City Council members voted 12 to 7 to recommend the change to the federal government, with councilor Howard Moscoe suggesting that the wording implied “women can’t feel true patriotism or love for Canada.” Senator Vivienne Poy introduced a similar (failed) bill in 2002, and during the 2010 throne speech by then-governor general Michaëlle Jean, she announced a plan for a parliamentary review of the lyric. However, after a poll showed two thirds of Canadians rejected the idea the plan was scrapped.

Most recently, in 2013 a group called “Restore Our Anthem”—which included prominent Canadian women like beloved author Margaret Atwood—campaigned for reversion without success. It seems the necessary enthusiasm has never been mobilized, leading to the issue being repeatedly revived only to be beaten down again.

For this latest effort, Belanger makes the argument that “our anthem should not ignore the increasingly important contributions of 52% of our population.” Yet his modest ask is facing sadly predictable—if suprisingly aggressive—criticism from both the public and government officials. The most common complaint is that the government should go work on “something more important.” (If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a well-known response to anyone who has tried to raise issues of everyday sexism.) Meanwhile Tory MP Peter Goldring has oddly suggested that the word “son” can have multiple meanings, even using Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to back up his point.

“It does not necessarily refer to a male offspring,” Goldring claimed. “This is particularly true when referencing nationhood.” Some think that referencing our sons properly honors the massive loss of male lives in combat, while others are blatantly clinging to the status quo, accusing Belanger and his supporters of political correctness run amuck. Mostly there’s just widespread marked indifference. I mean, who cares about a few words, right?

Reuters/Andy Clark
Stand, salute, repeat.

As a sports fan, I probably hear O Canada more often than your average Canadian. During peak baseball season, I’m at a busy Toronto Blue Jays ballpark two or three times a week, removing my cap to stand at attention while either a choir of awkward children or a gifted songstress belts the anthem out over the PA system. When you hear a song that often—even something this hallowed—it adopts a sort of grocery store radio quality, losing lyrical detail in favor of white noise and repetitive ceremony.

I will admit, even I sometimes have to remind myself why the throwback needs an overhaul. But even if we don’t always notice or care, O Canada is a relic of inequality similar to all the other small examples of sexism that continue to permeate our culture—Hooters waitresses, swimsuit editions, “ice girls,” gendered toys, cleaning product commercials, bic pens “for her,” and pretty much every family sitcom ever. These are the things that while arguably inconsequential on their own, combine to become a juggernaut of harmful expectations and exclusion.

Critics like to dispute accusations of sexism with the refrain that we should be worrying about “more important” things, but not all work dismantling a centuries-old system of gender discrimination has to be dramatic. Yes, this change would effect a few small words, but together their inclusion amounts to a message of cultural evolution. In other words, it won’t make sexism disappear, but it will suggest that it should. “These two words that we want to reintroduce in O Canada are small yet meaningful,” notes Belanger. “And would ensure that more than 18 million Canadian women are included in our national anthem.”

Canadian members of parliament will debate the lyric change again on April 24, with a vote expected later that month. Many are predicting that the bill will fail (yet again,) largely because conservatives make up the majority in parliament and also tend to side with “history” and “tradition.” But Belanger’s argument underscores how meaningful it is to raise and examine the issue periodically, regardless of outcome:“It is a sign of courage and thoughtfulness that, as a nation, we are willing to say this is just not good enough for us.”

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