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Efforts to update national anthem are neglectful of history

(Left) Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, (Right) ‘O Canada’ author Robert Weir

On Sept. 22, Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger introduced a new private member’s bill (PMB).

This is fairly big news. It’s been four years since he last tabled a PMB, and considering the chronic issues in the Ottawa-Vanier district—homelessness, drug abuse, and prostitution, among others—it’s about time the local MP took some action. So, with that in mind, what cause has Bélanger chosen to champion?

Turns out, it’s changing the lyrics of Canada’s national anthem.

Bélanger’s Bill C-624 seeks to change the lyrics of “O Canada” from “In all thy sons command” to “In all of us command,” to make the anthem gender neutral.

This kind of proposal will definitely promote Bélanger as a champion for women, but the proposed change misses the point of the song.

The Canadian national anthem is a historical artifact. It is based on a song by Robert Stanley Weir that, like it or not, reflects the period in which it was written. In fact, the lyrics “in all thy sons” were added in 1914 to reflect the men who were involved in the First World War, a conflict in which we suffered devastating losses while proving ourselves on the battlefield and on the world stage.

The 1914 lyrics encapsulate and commemorate a time when Canada began to come into its own as an independent nation and move further away from the influence of the British Empire. To change the lyrics now to make them more gender neutral is akin to rewriting history textbooks to claim there was gender parity at the Charlottetown Conference.

Yes, shameful sexist attitudes and policies were prevalent throughout Canada’s history. But covering up the mistakes of our past in a shroud of political correctness will not help us do better in the future.

Opposition to alleged sexism in the anthem is nothing new. Conservative senator Nancy Ruth and former prime minister Kim Campbell have both advocated for revisions to the lyrics. In 2010, the Harper government even suggested reverting back to Robert Weir’s original “Thou dost in us command.” However, government efforts to amend the lyrics quickly fizzled out, probably because the majority of Canadians opposed this kind of unnecessary change.

I won’t deny that sexism exists in Canada, but one line in the anthem is not actively impeding or demeaning women. At worst, the current lyrics are a harmless anachronism representing a different era in Canadian history. At best, they are a tribute to the men who served in World War One.

Gender equality is without a doubt important to attain and uphold, but to change the national anthem would do little more than earn politicians some brownie points. “O Canada,” however, has been an excellent platform to honour and respect Canadian history—and that’s worth preserving.