This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Skip to Content

Bill C-210, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act


Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill C-210, an Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender). The purpose of this bill is precise and straightforward, to ostensibly make the national anthem gender neutral by removing the phrase "all thy sons command" and replacing it with "all of us command."

The supposed principle behind this bill is inclusion. We must examine these assertions thoroughly. Let me put on the record that I am not against the idea of changing words in the anthem if I believe them to be appropriate and grammatically correct and if the changes represent a sincere response to measured public demand. As my colleague and sponsor of the bill in this place Senator Nancy Ruth accurately stated in her speech, this is not the first time the words have been altered, but it must be remembered that changes incorporated in the National Anthem Act of 1980 were primarily meant to remove repetitive phrasing from the text of "O Canada" and were widely considered to be a stylistic improvement.

Both Senators Nancy Ruth and Tardif referred to the supposed original opening lines of the English anthem and argued that this proposed new version would be more consistent with the intent of the author, Stanley Weir.

But there is no definitive proof of this, and as Senator Cools observed in her fine speech on this topic, Mr. Weir's family has 1908 documents in his own handwriting, showing the opening lines as they presently exist. Besides, Stanley Weir was fine-tuning the words himself before and during the First World War, which should prove evidence enough that his intent was not to stick with the purported original. In any event, this argument is moot — the only version that has ever been sung publicly to anyone's knowledge, including the 1980 changes, is the one we presently sing. Its constant usage for over a century establishes its legitimacy.

There is nothing new about Canadian ambivalence regarding the national anthem. When I began school in 1960, we would usually start the day off with "O Canada." Occasionally, we would sing "God Save the Queen" in addition to "O Canada." But other times we would sing instead "The Maple Leaf Forever."

As an anthem, "The Maple Leaf Forever" had a lot going for it. Historically accurate and full of patriotic sentiment and imagery, it was written in 1867, the year of Confederation, by 37-year-old Alexander Muir, who was three years old when his family emigrated to Ontario from Scotland in 1833. A teacher like his father, he wrote the song as a tribute to the new country and published it at the urging of his friends. After an unsuccessful search for suitable music to set it to, he wrote the tune himself.

"The Maple Leaf Forever" is easy to sing a capella, it is rousing when sung by a gathering of people, and it is truly magnificent when performed by a professional choir. I invite honourable senators to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's version on YouTube. The comments on this anthem, which come in from all over the world, are revealing in their apolitical honestly. They write: "What a fabulous anthem. Why did Canada stop using this?" Or: "This anthem is absolutely lovely, much superior to `O Canada'." Or: "This anthem seriously touched my heart when I heard it, and I am not a Canadian."

There is nothing but constant praise for the words and the music in "The Maple Leaf Forever" and virtual astonishment that its stature has been so arbitrarily reduced. But I digress.

My biggest issue with this bill, and its critically fatal flaw, is that the proposed change is grammatically incorrect. Let's break the language down. "All thy sons command" is a phrase that is both possessive and plural. "Thy" is an archaic word and a possessive pronoun from Middle English, which in modern English means "your" and is the plural of "thou," which means "you."

Although it is archaic, "thy" is still proper English, and it was no less archaic in the early 20th century than it is today.

"Sons" is a plural noun and "thy sons" is the plural possessor of "command." If you are going to change this phrase in the proposed manner, you must replace it with a pronoun that is both plural and possessive. Although "us" is definitely plural, it is an objective and not a possessive pronoun. So if you use "us" as your substituting pronoun, not only is it grammatically wrong, but you also change the meaning and intent of the language.

The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase "All thy sons command" is "All of our command." The use of "our" conforms to the use of the rules of English language, as "our" is a plural possessive pronoun, which is required for this change. This is not opinion. This is fact.

In light of this irrefutable truth, it is simply unacceptable for the government to ask the Senate to ignore this glaring oversight, and I for one refuse to surrender to this dumbing down of language in the national anthem of my country. To quote Churchill: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!"

How could such an egregious mistake be made to occur in this legislation, especially with all those deep thinkers in our government? The answer, of course, is the legislative haste and political conduct of the government in engineering this issue. The Senate must now ensure that any proposed change to our anthem receives, at a minimum, the comprehensive review it demands, something it did not receive in the other place. We must give it sober second thought, especially in light of the apparent absence of any sober first thought by its proponents in the other place.

When Senator Munson spoke on this debate, he compared it to legislation which changed Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982. When reflecting on how this new act has been managed, I believe there are parallels, but none which give any credit to either Trudeau government. By 1982, the term "Dominion Day" had existed for 115 years. It was a distinctly Canadian designation, suggested by Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, New Brunswick's leading Father of Confederation. Tilley read from a psalm in the Old Testament: "And he shall have dominion also from sea to sea."

This sentiment is echoed in Canada's Latin motto a mari usque ad mare — from sea to sea — and also in Canada's official and legal name, as given in the BNA Act and incorporated into our modern Constitution: the Dominion of Canada.

Yet the original and long-standing name of our national holiday was mindlessly eradicated late on a Friday afternoon with 13 MPs in the House of Commons. An hour before quitting time, MP Hal Herbert introduced his pet project, a private member's bill amending the Holidays Act which would change the name from Dominion Day to Canada Day. The people he needed to support his scheme were in the house and the fix was in. Five minutes later, the bill was pushed through all three phases of reading and was passed without a recorded vote in the House of Commons.

It was and it remains a disgraceful abuse of parliamentary authority and a terribly arrogant, selfish and thoughtless thing to do. How can we complain that young people don't know the history of their country yet say nothing when shallow people embedded in our governments treat Canadian history so poorly and perpetually attach so little value to our hard-earned and distinctive Canadian heritage?

Now we see this government going down the same road with regard to the national anthem. They held one day of debate, refused to call more than one witness to committee, then rammed it through the house in one day. There was no public input whatsoever, although many Canadians have strong opinions about this matter. We should all remember that "O Canada" became the anthem because of its use in the First World War. The Great War established "O Canada" in the minds of Canadians as our anthem, and that is why the opening lines are so significant in the national narrative.

Senator Tardif, in her speech endorsing this linguistic abomination, ironically suggested that this change was dynamically similar to the flag debate of 1964, implying that everything worked out well in the end. I won't go into the politics of the flag debate today, as that would require another speech, but at least it can be said that the flag question received a thorough hearing. There were more than 250 speeches given over a six-month period in the House of Commons. The house committee reviewing the matter held 35 extensive meetings and received over 3,500 submissions regarding the design of the new flag.

Our national anthem deserves no less respect and attention, and this Government of Canada should not be treating it, or the opinions of Canadians, in such an arbitrary and dismissive fashion. For a government so obsessed with the concept of inclusion, they exhibit very little of it when it comes to listening to the opinions of the average Canadian regarding this anthem.

Now, let's discuss this concept of inclusion. All senators who have spoken to date in favour of this proposed change claim it's necessary to make the anthem more inclusive, and that inclusivity should be the basis on which we examine the anthem.

But the very first line of the anthem's English version — "O Canada, our home and native land" — is not inclusive. Canadians who weren't born here are not included as "native land" clearly means the land of your birth. Furthermore, when an earlier Trudeau government changed the anthem in 1980, they added the words "God keep our land glorious and free." That also is not inclusive, and although I take no issue with that revision, like a lot of Canadians at the time, I instinctively felt this wording to be an overt Americanization of our anthem.

Another problem with this bill is its assumption that the English language anthem is the only one that matters. But the French version of the anthem is also the original one, and it has never been altered. Why should one official version of the anthem be exempt from re-examination? I have always appreciated, and actually preferred, the French language version of "O Canada." It reflects a confident and triumphal French Canada in the last decades of the 19th century, imbued with the muscular Christianity practised throughout the British Empire of the era and fortified by its Catholic faith. It is about as politically incorrect as you can get, and that's just the first verse!

The song is riddled with references to God, faith, church and race. I won't go into the various sentiments articulated throughout the several French verses, save to say that the French version of "O Canada" would have a hard time today getting the social justice warrior seal of approval. It is, without question, an ethnic French Canadian, Catholic, nationalist battle hymn, certainly non-inclusive, yet I am not offended. It is just part of Canada's history in song. As far as I'm concerned, they should leave it alone forever. But if our new-age censors can leave it alone without a second thought, how then can the phrase, "All thy sons command" be considered excessively problematic?

Nonetheless, if inclusion is the argument for changing the words of the anthem, you have to uniformly apply the principle. You can't just change one line and ignore similar issues in other lines. In addition, both the English and the French language versions must also receive the same type of scrutiny, as both are, in law, the official anthems of the country.

A number of senators have also suggested that gender-neutral wording would better reflect the original French version, but just how accurate is that assessment? The opening lines of the French version, "Ô Canada! Terre de nos aïeux," is said to be gender neutral, but aïeux has many meanings, depending on the context. Yes, it can mean ancestors, but it can also mean forbearers or grandfathers. However, its most common application, and certainly the sentiment intended by the author, Adophe-Basile Routhier, is "O Canada, land of our forefathers." While the word "forefathers," like the word "mankind," can have generalized, inclusive meaning, the word "forefathers" in English is just as gender specific as the word "sons." The gender-neutral claims about the French version simply do not hold up upon examination.

However, I am not insensitive to the sincere wishes some people might have to alter the anthem. Are there other truly Canadian options we can consider that will fulfill the desire to achieve gender neutrality and inclusion? Honourable senators, I bring to your attention that there was an earlier version of "O Canada" produced in another language besides English and French. This was the Scottish Gaelic version of "O Canada." Most Canadians are completely unaware that from the 1780s until the late 1930s, a period spanning 150 years and three centuries, Scottish Gaelic was the third-most-common European language spoken in what is today Canada. At the time of Confederation, it was the most commonly spoken minority language in English-speaking Canada. It was the first language of both Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie, who served as our first two prime ministers for almost a quarter century. My grandparents all spoke Gaelic. Growing in up in the Cape Breton of the late 19th century, when over 80 per cent of the island spoke it as their first language, my father never spoke English until he went to school. Senator Cordy is a Cape Bretoner, a MacKinnon by birth, and both of her parents spoke Gaelic. There were many Gaelic-speaking areas in Ontario in particular, with a very large community in Glengarry County, and many other pockets across the country in all provinces, including Quebec.

Norman Murray of Ontario was the author of the Scottish Gaelic version. He captured the spirit of the original French version when he wrote O Ceanada!, An taobh tuath treubhach coir; Crun air do cheann, de dhuilleag dhearg `s or.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator MacDonald: Translated into English, it reads "O Canada, Northern land, so gallant and fine, your head is crowned with leaves, of red and gold." Isn't that beautifully expressed? It is so poetic and gentle, reflective, colourful and unmistakably Canadian. In addition, it is both gender neutral and inclusive. In short, it's got it all. I say we go with this!

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Senator MacDonald, do you require more time?

Senator MacDonald: Might I have five minutes?

Some Hon. Senators: Yes.

Senator MacDonald: Maybe we should hold a referendum so Canadians can choose between the Scottish Gaelic version and the present anthem. That should settle the matter.

However, perhaps a better solution is to keep the anthem intact. I endeavour to be open-minded to change, so I asked female family members, neighbours, friends and associates what they thought of the proposed change, and their overwhelming response is that the government should drop the idea. Sometimes we should just leave well enough alone. The point is, we can all pursue narrow, personal agendas if we wish, but I know the anthem is not just about me, and I respectfully suggest to others it's not just about you. The anthem is part of our collective historical inheritance and is a contribution from another era which helped shape the Canada that exists today. I trust that a century from now, our Canadian descendants will show respect and appreciation for the contributions made to Canada by our generation. But respect is a two-way street, and we must also remember to regard the contributions of those that came before us with the same respect we hope to receive from those that will come after us.

Earlier I mentioned three criteria which I felt had to be satisfied before changing the anthem could be justified. In two of these cases, the necessity of proper grammar and the need for real public demand, the government's legislation completely fails. The grammar is obviously faulty, and there is no significant public demand to modify the anthem. It is but another now-all-too- familiar example of levelling our history down to the lowest common denominator, of treating our Canadian heritage as something to be disposed of at the drop of a hat and at the whim of a few.

The government's attitude appears to be, "We'll change it because we can," but I submit that such an attitude is both unfair and inappropriate. Canadians have to be given a fair, comprehensive and, in the spirit of our present government, inclusive say in the matter.

So what should the Senate do with this legislation? I remind all honourable senators, and particularly our new independent colleagues, that this is not government legislation but a private member's bill. This is not a money bill or an act affecting the Criminal Code. This is not a confidence matter, and the Senate should not be reticent in defending and preserving the heritage of Canada. I ask, if the senators of Canada are not prepared to defend the heritage of this country, just who in present-day Ottawa is going to defend it? The Senate is the last parliamentary bastion for the people, and we must stand firm to ensure the preservation of our rich, unique and genuine historical legacy.

Since the Charter of Rights was enacted in 1982, Canadians have witnessed an increasingly interventionist Supreme Court, with appointed judges basically rewriting law according to their wishes. While often their judgments can definitely be questioned, no one questions the legitimacy of their actions because they are appointed. This Senate is an appointed body as well, but it is just as legitimate in law as any appointed court, and we should feel free to judge this legislation with the full authority granted to us under the Constitution.

Usually the Senate would send bills to committee after second reading, but this bill is badly flawed because the government spent so little time considering it. It is not deserving of that next step. It is the Senate's responsibility to return bad legislation back to the House of Commons. The government changed two words in the anthem yet was oblivious to the fact that they got the grammar wrong. They were completely inept with this file. Senator Hubley has recently initiated an inquiry on the state of literacy in Prince Edward Island. Perhaps it should be expanded to include Ottawa.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator MacDonald: This bill should not go to committee. This bill should be defeated in its present form. The Government of Canada has been incredibly sloppy in handling this legislation, consequently botching the language, and should be held fully accountable. If the government is serious about this matter, they should treat it seriously and bring forth a government bill which exhibits due diligence.

Senators should not accept, condone or approve bad grammar. We should be embracing literacy, not undermining it, and we certainly should not be incorporating faulty grammar into our national anthem.

Senators are the designated elders of Canada, privileged to sit in the upper house of this great nation, and we should conduct ourselves accordingly. Canadians will understand and be in agreement if we exercise our constitutional authority and stop this bill now, and they will thank the Senate for its leadership on the issue. I strongly urge all honourable senators to do what the country wants and vote against this poorly drafted and insupportable legislation.

Thank you, honourable senators, for your time and attention.