Senate bill changes two small (but important) words in “O Canada”

A Canadian flag in front of the sun Photo by Christopher Policarpio

The phrase “in all thy sons command” has long been a thorn in the side of Canadians who want our national anthem to project an image of gender equality. But today, Senate passed a bill which eliminated the word “sons” from the anthem. The full line is now “True patriot love in all of us command.”

This isn’t the first attempt to make “O Canada” more gender inclusive. Twelve previous bills have tried and failed to change the lyrics. In 2010, parliament announced its intention to review the lyrics and consider changing them back to their original wording from 1908, but three-quarters of those polled were against the idea, and it was dropped.

The current bill was introduced in 2016 by Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger. He believed that the song’s reference only to “sons” was discriminatory. The bill was stalled in the Senate later that year with some vocal opponents, and Bélanger passed away in August 2016 while it was still awaiting a vote. Today, his bill finally got through the senate.

“I’m very, very happy. There’s been 30-years-plus of activity trying to make our national anthem — this important thing about our country — inclusive of all of us,” Ontario Senator Francis Larkin told the CBC. “This may be small, it’s about two words, but it’s huge. . . . We can now sing it with pride, knowing the law will support us in terms of the language. I’m proud to be part of the group that made this happen.”

Back in June 2016, Conservative Senator David Wells spoke to CBC News about his decision to attempt to stall the bill. “I’m trying to protect the tradition rather than, you know, water it down with a politically correct version that is historically inaccurate,” he said.

However, some have noted that the version of O Canada most of us grew up singing was already far from historically accurate. For starters, in its very earliest incarnation, the anthem was actually in French. The music was originally composed in 1880, and French lyrics were added. Then, in 1906, an English version was created. In that version, the contested line was sung without reference to gender: “True patriot love thou dost in us command.”

The wording about sons was then introduced after World War I, and the song was officially adopted as Canada’s national anthem in 1980.

The bill was controversial in the Senate and continues to be opposed by some Canadians. Conservative Senator Don Plett said he would have liked to see a referendum on the issue. “Clearly, I’m disappointed. . . . It’s been a long fight. I believe the Canadian public wanted a say in our national anthem, just like they had in the great Canadian flag debate. This is an issue for the Canadian public to decide, not just a couple of Independent senators.”

However, some Canadians are thrilled with the change. Independent senator Chantal Petitclerc, a former Paralympian, noted that this winter’s Olympics will be an opportunity for Canadian athletes to show the new anthem to the world.

“I had the privilege to be on the podium many times, and I never had the chance to sing ‘In all of us command,'” she said. “I can only imagine what they’ll feel when they’re on the step of that podium. . . . It’s an amazing moment.”

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