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Gender-neutral O Canada: An idea whose time already happened—130 years ago

luke champion

Hot on the tail of the reinvigorated nationalism left in the wake of the Olympics in Vancouver, parliament reopened yesterday with the speech from the throne given by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean.

Appropriately timed with said nationalism, the country’s National Anthem made its way into the hour-long allocution. The government would like to retool the English language version of O Canada ever so slightly, with the intent on a more gender neutral tone.

The line in question: “True patriot love, in all thy sons command.”

This is a suggestion that is bound to be met with resistance and controversy, but really it’s a non-issue. More symbolic than anything else and arguments can be made over political correctness vs. historic significance, but all in all I don’t really have a problem with a little tinkering. A fuss might be made by so called patriots who feel threatened by minor changes to any nationalistic customs, but supposing the lyrics were changed, a generation from now no one would know the difference and really, isn’t it a good idea to include the entire population?

That being said, it might be a good idea to re-examine “God keep our land…” as well. But that’s another debate.

One reason why this change shouldn’t be met with much resistance is that the original poem the lyrics are lifted from doesn’t include that line in the first place. The original poem, written by R. Stanely Weir and commissioned for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City contained the slightly different, and wholly gender neutral, line “True patriot love thou dost in us command.” But even that is not the original version. O Canada began its life as a nationalistic French hymn in 1880, with music by French composer Calixa Lavallée and lyrics by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, 100 years before it was made Canada’s national anthem. The French lyrics have remained unchanged since they were first written and bear no resemblance to English Canada’s version:

O Canada! Land of our forefathers
Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
As in thy arm ready to wield the sword,
So also is it ready to carry the cross.
Thy history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits.

Thy valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights
Will protect our homes and our rights.

It wasn’t until 1901 that English Canada got its own version with translated lyrics by Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson.

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

Since then there have been many incarnations of the English language translation, some slight, some significant. Weir’s poem, written in 1908, became the favorite, and in 1927 the poem was published as part of the diamond jubilee of confederation.

Even then, it took until 1980 for O Canada to replace God Save the Queen as Canada’s official national anthem.

There is nothing sacred about the words to O Canada—they have been toyed and tooled with for a century now. Perhaps they should be a little fluid, evolving as the country does, changing to fit the nation it represents. If anything it is the melody that Canadians should hold dear.

If the decision is made to alter the anthem, it would be appropriate to reinstate Weir’s original line “Thou dost in us command,” it has historic significance, it’s gender neutral and it gives an element of power to the whole, rather than the individual, our new found post-Olympic national identity should appreciate that.

Of course, the whole thing is just a big distraction tactic by the Tories anyway. Mission accomplished!

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