SASKATOON — On March 3, the Conservative government presented its new agenda in a speech from the throne. Although it was mostly about the gloomy economy, there was also this nugget: “Our government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.”
In less than 20 words, the government ignited criticism across the country. Numerous editorials were written about the stupidity of wanting to change O Canada and how this was “political correctness run amok,” a remarkably versatile straw man dragged out whenever some dare to point out societal inequalities.
People wrote in to newspapers, phoned radio shows, and joined Facebook groups to protest the potential change to the anthem and before long the government caved to the pressure.
The offending line, of course, is “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” But the suggested change would have been a small one. After all, it was to examine the “original” gender-neutral language, not to concoct a new anthem entirely.
When Stanley Weir wrote his patriotic poem in 1908, it started as such: “O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love thou dost in us command.” Over the last 100 years, however, there have been numerous tweaks to the language, leaving us with “sons” and a rather awkward reference to God (but that’s another hornets’ nest altogether).
Changing four words would not have resulted in some anarcho-feminist manifesto. It simply would have expanded the true patriot love Canadians feel for their country from “sons” to everyone. Indeed, it would have been a restoration of the anthem to some extent.
What is even more surprising than the violent reaction the proposal was met with is that many people seemingly don’t know the words to the current O Canada. In numerous online discussions, people talked about “In all our sons command,” which does not appear in the anthem. The Province newspaper in British Columbia even wrote an editorial suggesting a change from “sons” to “hearts” in order to sing, “True patriot love in all our hearts command,” making one wonder if the national anthem is sung differently in B.C.
There are some good reasons for keeping the anthem as it stands. After all, national symbols lose their meaning when changed too often. Most people don’t sing O Canada with the intention of excluding women anyway, interpreting it as a universal call to patriotism.
But regardless of how people interpret O Canada, the anthem still needs an update. People rarely employ the word mankind anymore, choosing instead to refer to humanity or humankind. Using sons to refer to the entire country is just as outdated a notion, especially given that women form a majority of the Canadian population.
National symbols are not set in stone. In fact, the current version of O Canada has only been Canada’s official national anthem since 1980 when it replaced God Save the Queen – certainly a change for the better. Canadians often pride themselves in being able to examine the country critically – something frequently lorded over those silly Americans to the south.
But the most dangerous part about the backlash to the proposed changes has been a similar unwillingness to even discuss the role of the national anthem and what it means to citizens, particularly because the changes would have reflected the supposed Canadian value of inclusiveness. That the debate soon veered into hysteria does not bode well for future discussions about national identity.
One momentous change in Canada’s history occurred 45 years ago with the adoption of the red and white maple leaf as the Canadian flag. After considering hundreds of other designs, Parliament approved the wonderful flag flown proudly across the country today. At the official ceremony, Senator Maurice Bourget welcomed the flag as “the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief, or opinion.”
Those same principles of inclusion and unity ought to guide any discussion about the national anthem as well. A rational dialogue about national symbols shows off the best principles of Canadian society; blind adherence to tradition does not.
Ishmael N. Daro is the CUP Opinions Bureau chief. This article originally appeared in the Canadian University Press.