Opinion: So much has changed since 1913; why not the national anthem?


By Dale Peacock

Hearing the opening bars of our National Anthem always makes me tear up just a little. And if I’m out of the country I am liable to burst into full blown sobs.

I was in middle of nowhere Mexico one time during the Olympics. The Canadian National Anthem was blasting from a massive old TV just inside the doorway of a modest wee house when I became overwhelmed with this feeling of patriotism that hit me in the gut like a donkey’s kick. I started to wail so forlornly that a kind woman came out with a glass of water and started patting me on the back while darting evil looks in hubby’s direction just in case he was the cause of my distress.

I say this to demonstrate – even defend – my love of country lest someone assume that I am lacking in true patriot love because I want to see change in the lyrics of the National Anthem.

First, a little history lesson. Originally called “Chant National,” it was written in Quebec City by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier and composer Calixa Lavallée and first performed on June 24, 1880. It later spread across Canada in a number of English language versions, the best known of which was written by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908.

The French version never changed but the English one was amended a number of times until being approved by a special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons in 1967. The current version was officially adopted as our National Anthem in 1980 under the National Anthem Act as proclaimed by then Governor General Edward Schreyer.

Revisions were made to Weir’s version in 1913, 1914 and 1916. In The Common School Book of Vocal Music, published by the Educational Book Company of Toronto in 1913, the original line “True patriot love thou dost in us command” was changed to “True patriot love in all thy sons command.”

This particular change was also included in a version published by Delmar in 1914, and in all versions printed thereafter. There is no solid evidence as to why the change to “sons” was made, although it is worth noting both that the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing and there was an huge upswing in patriotism at the start of the First World War . Perhaps the change was an opportunity for the power elite (read men) to both slap women down AND lift men up at the same time.

Why some people get their panties in a knot over the suggestion that we return to something closer to the original version is beyond me.

Most recently, Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, whose vocal chords have been damaged by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is trying for a second time to change the English lyrics to O Canada to make the national anthem more gender neutral. It is a simple – in my view – request to amend the second line of the anthem from true patriot love “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

Bélanger introduced an identical bill in the last session of Parliament; it was defeated at second reading last April by a close vote of 144-127. While MPs from all the opposition parties supported the change most Conservative MPs voted against it; I’d suggest it was mostly to be contrary.

Bélanger makes the point that the version he is espousing actually returns the anthem to a form closer to the original. Since 1980 there have been at least 10 attempts to change the second line to reflect the contributions that women have made to this country too and all have failed.

There is lots of passion around the subject: I understand that some people just don’t like change or see no point in it or they are traditionalists who don’t like feeling that important touchstones can be upended willy-nilly. Then there are those who believe that it disrespects men who have served and died for our country although I’m not sure how.

Others just think that talking about it is a waste of time and that ‘damn Trudeau’ should get on with something that IS important. Well, Mr. Bélanger doesn’t have much time: he is terminally ill and yet it’s important enough to him that he’s willing to spend his last days fighting for the change.

Look, nobody thinks the intent of the second line of the anthem is to marginalize half of the population. But words matter and they can lead to a change in attitude.

Why not change the words to make them more reflective of modern reality? Women work. They fight in the armed forces and female images will soon appear on currency. Our society has changed greatly since 1913 and pretty significantly since 1980; maybe it’s time for this change too. Einstein said, “When you change the way you look at things the things you look at change.”

Dale Peacock

Dale Peacock

Following a career in the hospitality sector and the acquisition of a law and justice degree in her 50s, Dale embarked on a writing career armed with the fanciful idea that a living could be made as a freelancer.  To her own great surprise she was right.  The proof lies in hundreds of published works on almost any topic but favourites include travel, humour & satire, feature writing, environment, politics and entrepreneurship. Having re-invented herself half a dozen times, Dale doesn’t rule anything out.  Her time is divided equally between Muskoka and Tampa Bay with Jim, her husband of 7 years and partner of 32 years.  Two grown ‘kids’ and their spouses receive double doses of love and attention when she’s at home. 

 Feature artwork courtesy of  www.anglotopia.net

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  1. While we are at it take out the reference to God. Instead of “God keep our land, glorious and free”. How about “Let’s keep our land glorious and free”. Since it is up to us, not God and why would God give us preference over some other country anyway. The lines on a map are man made. Canada is a human invention, just like every other country.

  2. Joy Salmon Moon on

    And while we’re at it “our home and CHOSEN land”. We are a land of immigrants. Some of my ancestors came in the 1830’s, some in the 1870’s, but all were immigrants. I have no native ancestry, that I know of.

  3. Dwight Davies on


    Interesting topic,…what version made you emotional in Mexico,….I still get emotion about the Canadian national anthem….words are important, but I feel an instrumental version causes the same emotion,. ……example,..the Olympics,…..I think Canadians can choose their lyrics and don’t need to be legislated….for what it’s worth.

  4. I am so grateful for your decision to speak out about this, Dale. With the birth of a new grand-daughter I feel even more strongly about this and am so grateful that Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger is making another attempt to make this change so that all Canadians can feel included in their national anthem. As Canadian women we know very well that words matter since it is a historical fact that even such an inclusive word as “person” was ruled by five Canadian Supreme Court judges to mean “male” and it was only in 1928 that Canadian women became legal persons. We cannot say for sure what motivated the change from “us” to “sons” in 1913 but it certainly had the effect of excluding women. Sons does not mean daughters and it never has. In my opinion it is well beyond time to replace the words “all our sons” with “all of us” and I pray that common sense and justice will prevail when the time comes for parliamentarians to vote. Let’s make our national anthem include all of us as it was intended to do in the first place. Bravo for speaking out Dale!

  5. In light of recent events in Orlando, the suggested revision to our National Anthem is even more warranted. While intended to bring women into the Canadian family, it has the unintended consequence of including everybody. We ignore tolerance at our peril.

  6. Karen Wehrstein on

    The best course, in my opinion, is for the anthem not to contain lyrics that exclude any Canadian, as inclusivity is a long-standing Canadian tradition by which we have benefitted greatly.

    So I agree with Mr. Bélanger and you, Dale, about “all thy sons.” As soon as I was old enough to understand the words, I was thinking, “What about the daughters? I’m a daughter and I love Canada.” By my estimate, approximately 50% of Canadians have likely had the same thought.

    I recall the most recent lyric changes, enshrined in 1980. In school, I first learned “And stand on guard, O Canada,” which was changed to “From far and wide, O Canada” — a good amendment as there were too many stand-on-guard’s and “far and wide” is an excellent descriptor of our nation’s geography. But I also learned “O Canada, glorious and free” only to have it change to “God keep our land glorious and free,” and make me feel excluded in a second way, as I was raised atheist.

    The reference to God excludes atheists, people who believe in more than one God and people whose name for their God or Gods is not “God,” even though, as a nation, we believe firmly in religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Furthermore, I don’t think keeping our land glorious and free is up to any deity, but to Canadian human beings. For all these reasons, the God reference seems an anomaly and I agree with Sandra.

    “Native land” denotes the country in which you were born, not where your ancestors were, but it does exclude current immigrants. Conversely, “chosen land” could be seen to exclude those who were born here. “Cherished land” only excludes those who don’t cherish it, but I think we could do that since they wouldn’t care.

    Finally, the national anthem and hence the edits we’d like to make *are* important, else every nation wouldn’t have an anthem. It expresses feeling for a nation though a very powerful medium — music — and singing it together is an expression of national community. We have the tune and the words ingrained into us from very young. It triggers our emotions, as Dale described well. It influences our lives. Stand on guard for inclusivity, O Canada!

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