Gender-neutral anthem would have been fine birthday gift to Canada: Editorial

It would have been a fine gift for Canada’s 150th, but a group of recalcitrant senators has ensured that women and girls will have to wait beyond the sesquicentennial celebrations for a national anthem that includes them.

A group of about 20 senators used procedural delay tactics to prevent a vote from taking place before summer recess on a private member’s bill that seeks to change two words in “O Canada” to make the anthem gender neutral at last.

Our elected Members of Parliament rightly approved the change more than a year ago. Senators should get out of the way of progress.

The bill, put forward by the late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, proposes to change the words from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

The dissenting senators claim the proposal is an affront to tradition. But as the Star has argued before, our attitude toward women has substantially evolved over the century since the English words of “O Canada” were written. Only extremists would contend this process has not been for the better. Surely the anthem, a symbol of our national values, should evolve with us rather than harden into a permanent, exclusionary anachronism.

Indeed, as Ramona Lumpkin, the president and vice-chancellor of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, and a strong proponent of the bill told the CBC: “It’s not as if the words were brought down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets like the Ten Commandments. They are words created by humans and subject to change as our social and cultural conditions change, and thank goodness they do.”

She is right. In any case, it’s not as if the words have never been altered before. In fact, they’ve been tweaked at least 25 times.

Ironically, the very words “in all thy sons command” were absent from the original English lyrics of “O Canada,” which included the gender-neutral phrase “thou dost in us command.” Years later, Robert Stanley Weir reshaped the line into its more mellifluous but less inclusive current form.

The arguments against the update are feeble, yet for the last quarter-century, a growing chorus of critics has failed to convince Parliament to make our anthem more inclusive. What message does this send?

“I talk to students and young women regularly who still feel their voice doesn’t carry as strong as the voice of the male friends,” Lumpkin said. “I think the gesture, even though it’s symbolic, would say a lot to these young women.”

These lyrics are sung by hundreds of thousands of us every day; we demand that our children learn them by heart. The notion that we would choose to exclude half the population simply because we have always done so, especially when we have not, in fact, always done so, is shameful.

As Bélanger argued before his death, we ought to “continually test our assumptions, and indeed our symbols, for their suitability.”

The exclusionary language of “O Canada” is no longer suitable. The Senate is now the last obstacle to correcting this. The Upper House should get out of the way and let our 150th birthday be the last on which we celebrate with a song that leaves half of us out.

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