National Anthem: True Patriot Fondness

There, there, now that didn’t hurt so much, did it? Last week (or was it the week before? the hazy, lazy parliamentary summer is upon us), the Canadian House of Commons voted 219-79, during second reading, for a bill that would change two words in the country’s national anthem, “O, Canada,” to make it gender neutral.

The flag.

The flag.

If Bill C-210 makes it all the way through the legislative process, the anthem’s second line will be changed from, “True patriot love in all thy sons command” to “True patriot love in all of us command.” Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsor, Liberal MP Mauril Belanger couldn’t be present for the vote because of illness.

MP Mauril Belanger.

MP Mauril Belanger.

Belanger, who is suffering from the terminal condition, amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and is able to communicate verbally only by using a text-to-speech computer program, made the proposal to revise the national song last month, but a churlish Conservative Opposition refused to grant the unanimity required for a private member’s bill to be heard. Naturally this led to a typical stop-kicking-the-dog Canadian controversy. The Globe and Mail headlined its story, “Conservatives stall national anthem bill from MP with fatal disease,” while the Huffington Post lamented, “Tories block dying  MP’s bid to see gender neutral anthem pass.” The permanently outraged social media mob weighed in with similar sentiments.

What wasn’t clear was what the Conservatives had against the change. In fact, the former Stephen Harper government had made a similar proposal in 2010, but backed off after angry traditional lyrics-loving constituents gave the then prime minister an earful about new-fangled words.

In the current squabble, one Tory MP, Peter Van Loan, accused the Liberals of trying to impose their worldview on Canadians. Trying to impose fairness, inclusiveness and equality on poor, oppressed, basically bigoted Canadians? Huh? Like the national anthem lyrics, the idea barely scans.

Andrew Coyne, otherwise the country’s sanest, if rather humourless, conservative columnist, devoted an entire column in the National Post to explaining why the change was unnecessary. Coyne first properly pointed out that the fact that the bill’s sponsor suffers from a fatal disease is not a logical argument against attempts “to delay, debate or defeat legislation.” True enough. (Andrew Coyne, “Debate over O Canada lyrics is about language, not gender equality,” National Post, May 9, 2016.)

Alas, Coyne then goes on to make the case that this is a dispute about “language, not gender equality.” Says Coyne, “Let’s stipulate off the top that no one sings the national anthem with the intent that it should apply only to ‘thy sons.’” Gee, I’m not so sure we should “stipulate” that, or anything else, “off the top.” After all, the lyrics — penned by one Robert Stanley Weir in 1908 — do say, “all thy sons,” and don’t mention women. Actually, as historical sticklers will be quick to point out, Weir’s original 1908 English language lyrics didn’t say “all thy sons,” but rather “True patriot love thou dost in us command.” Weir didn’t change the line to its present reading until 1914. In 1926, a further change added a reference to religion. So, in any case, the lyrics, in all their soupyness, are not sacrosanct.

But Coyne’s point is not what the words say, but how they’re understood. “What separates the two sides, then, is not whether they believe the anthem should be inclusive, but whether they think it is. The distinction is not between those who recognize that there is more than one sex and those who do not, but between the phrase’s literal meaning and its meaning as it is intended and commonly understood… which is to say, ‘All of us.’” Hmm, wouldn’t it be simpler just to change the two words rather than to make our eyes glaze over with disquisitions on the nature of language? Coyne goes on (and on) to discourse about the difference between “meaning” and “use,” but it’s not really necessary to follow the columnist into the briny depths of linguistic philosophy. The Commons debate itself will do.

The political rhetoric is unobjectionable and provides reason enough for the change. Echoing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s explanation for why he created a gender-equal cabinet – “It’s 2016” – New Democrat MP Christine Moore said, “We are in 2016… It is not a big change… but the difference is significant for women all across Canada.” Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who has been championing the bill on Belanger’s behalf, added, “This year, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Next year we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It would be nice if we stopped excluding women from their national anthem.”

Coyne’s column contained a little snort about objectionable “political correctness” (which I suspect is his real gripe about the whole debate). But, as Freud once pointed out, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (rather than a phallic symbol), and sometimes a dab of political correctness is simply politically correct, i.e., the right thing to do.

Of course, there are those traditionalists in the national choir who fear a slippery slope. Sure, gender-neutralize the anthem, but what about the opening, “O Canada! Our home and native land”? Reeks of colonial privilege, no? Offends natives whose native land it is. How about “our home and cherished land,” as some have suggested. And then there’s “God keep our land glorious and free,” which apparently favours one sky deity over others, as one reader-commenter put it. As for “true patriot love,” or fondness, or mild affection, and whether it aligns us with monarchial regimes, O sigh. You can see why some politicians have wisely kept their amendments to a succinct two words.

If the national anthem bill sustains sufficient parliamentary support, there are still further legislative hurdles, heritage committees, and a third and final reading/vote on the bill. It’s unlikely to get done before Parliament adjourns for the summer.

Some radically-minded types have suggested scrapping the present national anthem and replacing it with, say, some charming sea-chanty, like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Personally, we prefer a tune more appropriate to the national character. How about Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”? Uh, sorry ‘bout that.





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