What the Conservatives Have Wrong About Changing “O Canada”

O Canada.svg

Friday saw one of the more inspiring and heart-warming moments in the recent history of the House of Commons. Despite being confined to an electric wheelchair and having lost the use of his voice due to ALS, Member of Parliament Mauril Belanger appeared in the House of Commons to ensure that his private member’s bill to change the lyrics of “O Canada” to be gender neutral passed the third and final reading.  The final vote on Bill C-210 is on Wednesday, June 22nd and is all but assured to now pass smoothly. In a fitting conclusion to this saga, a day later, after seeing the vote pass with a comfortable majority, Belanger was serenaded with the gender-neutral version of the anthem at the Ottawa Walk for ALS. 

However, this feel-good narrative obscures the substantial opposition from the Conservative Party of Canada, as well as numerous members of the general public. Conservative opposition is best expressed by the following tweet from party HQ on Friday during the vote:

The Conservative Party trying to drum up popular anger against the proposed change is simply their latest tactic to prevent “In all our sons’ command” being changed to “In all of us command”. Through a variety of procedural ploys, the Tories attempted to delay the vote long enough that Parliament adjourned for the summer, thus killing the bill on the order paper. Their oposition is particularly amusing given that in the Throne Speech of March 3rd, 2010, the Harper government proposed making the very same change. While Harper and his cabinet walked back the proposed change two days later, the Tories clearly were not horrified by the thought of changing the anthem a mere six years ago. I suspect that their recent opposition comes more from seeking political advantage than any meaningful conviction.  Thankfully, their efforts, sincere or not, have been rendered mute with Friday’s vote. I say thankfully not only because I agree with the change to the anthem, but also find the Conservative’s position deeply ahistorical. Much like their celebrations of the War of 1812 in 2012, the party faithful has invented their own version of history and then sought to defend it as part of some mythical vision of Canadian history which never existed in the first place.

The initial and most important point is that “O Canada” has not been our anthem from time immemorial. In fact, it was only adopted as Canada’s official national anthem in 1980. Prior to that “O Canada” was the national anthem while “God Save the Queen” was the Royal Anthem of Canada. Confused as to the difference? So was the entire country so you aren’t alone. However, even that designation only dates from 1967. Prior to the Centenial, depending on what city you were in determined what song was sung as the national anthem before, say, a sporting event. Go to a Montreal Canadiens game and you got “O Canada” (in French) while at a Toronto Maple Leafs’ game you’d get “God Save the Queen.” The earliest possible date for “O Canada” being adopted as an unofficial Canadian anthem was 1939, with George VI’s visit to Ottawa for the dedication of the National War Memorial. So at best, “O Canada” has only been our anthem in any form for less than eighty years and even then, it was the French version that predominated.

Throughout the period from the composition of the English version in 1908 until the (mostly) definitive version was published in 1927, “O Canada” was simply one of a variety of patriotic songs sung in English Canada. Throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian years (1880-1910) and into the First World War, a variety of civic organizations would arrange patriotic song contests and recitals, usually designed to encourage patriotic feelings in young Anglo school children. In fact, from 1867 onwards it was “The Maple Leaf Forever” that many in English Canada viewed as the Dominion’s unofficial anthem. However, “The Maple Lead Forever” fell out of favour because it was clear that its lyrics were not inclusive. In particular, its first verse, praising “Wolfe the dauntless hero” was rightly seen as excluding French Canadians, hence the rise of “O Canada” in the 1920s and 30s. The obvious question arising from this story is, if it is permissible to change the anthem to ensure a third of the population isn’t alienated by the anthem, why is it controversial to ensure that over 50% of the population is represented in the anthem’s lyrics?

Beyond the fact that “O Canada” is not as historic as many Canadians seem to believe, it has also undergone multiple changes throughout the years. While Robert Stanley Weir’s 1908 translation has become the basis for the modern song, it was actually one of many attempts to create an English version of the anthem at the turn of the last century. While previous versions had failed to catch hold of the popular imagination, Weir’s version, which contained no reference to God and the line “thou dost in us command”, became the popularly accepted version.

Robert Stanley Weir

Robert Stanley Weir


It wasn’t until 1914 that the line “thou dost in us command” was changed to “in all thy sons command” to specifically reference the men being sent overseas to fight in the First World War. It is particularly important to note that the change in lyrics was intended to be gendered. This use of the masculine sons instead of the neutral us was not a case of using the male as a substitute for the universal, such as using mankind instead of human -kind, rather it was an explicit reference to male soldiers fighting overseas. If people want the anthem to reference Canadians serving overseas that is completely legitimate but given that Canadian soldiers are now sons AND daughters, the anthem should reflect this reality.

Finally, the religious references in the anthem, such as an entire fourth verse all about God, were added even later than “in all thy sons command.” These references to God were only inserted in the 1927 Diamond Jubilee of Confederation version. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1970 that “God keep our land became an official part of the anthem. Now, instead of repeating “O Canada we stand on guard for thee” four times, the second time the line is repeated the Canadian government changed it in 1970 to read “God keep our land glorious and free.” However, this change towards the religious was not without controversy as many Canadians opposed it and insisted, for years afterwards, in singing the “original” version.

The overall point is that the history of our national anthem is one of almost constant change. The English lyrics – and versions for that matter – have been repeatedly altered to reflect the priorities and concerns of the existing generation. The change proposed by Mauril Belanger is simply the latest attempt to update our anthem to ensure it is reflective of Canada in the 21st century. But rather than recognizing the dynamic nature of “O Canada”, the Conservative Party has decided to cling to an imagined history where “O Canada” has remained the static and unchanging since John A. Macdonald handed it down to Canadians from atop a Canadian Pacific Railway train crossing the Rockies. Unfortunately for the Tories, and thankfully for everyone else, Canadian history isn’t so simplistic. Now, let us see what happens when someone proposes removing God from the national anthem or the constitution?   



One thought on “What the Conservatives Have Wrong About Changing “O Canada”

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of June 12, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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