I watched my 4-year-old son sing “O Canada” at his preschool graduation last week. He probably only knew half the words but there was something significant about him standing there with his classmates professing devotion for his country.
Parents were dutifully on their feet, albeit with their cellphones out, capturing the moment.
It got me thinking about the proposed change to the national anthem that is currently before the Senate; the phrase in question, “in all our son’s command,” would be changed to “in all of us command.” The gender-neutral phraseology would please those who take issue with patriarchal terminology. On the other hand, traditionalists will likely balk at the thought of altering this key phrase.
The anthem isn’t so sacred that it is beyond revision; that very same phrase once read “thou dost in us command.”
The original French version of “O Canada” was written in 1880 and spawned many English versions that varied around the same theme, until the final version was officially adopted as the anthem in 1980.
It’s not that the proposed changes are arbitrary or that they contain anything particularly off-putting. “In all of us” sounds remarkably similar to “in all our sons,” and if sung simultaneously could pass for one another.
Remembering Our Sons
The lyrics as they stand have a stoic, battle-ready feel. “We stand on guard” implies” being ready to defend against aggressors. “In all our sons command” also speaks of military-style obedience. It’s an old-fashioned song that speaks of old-fashioned values that laid the foundation for the country as it is today. It also carries the scars of two World Wars during which Canada lost many of its sons, and those sons died in a patriotic act of sacrifice.
It was the time when Canada forged itself as a nation in the collective battle for good and earned admiration around the world.
In this time of relative peace we are far removed from that sort of world at war and for those who did not live through it, it’s hard to fathom the enormous sacrifices that were made.
Canada is in a new era domestically and abroad, and in many ways it makes sense that the anthem reflects who we are becoming as well as who we were. After all, we are patriotic but also humble and willing to cooperate and compromise in the interest of the common good.
If changes are made they should be made out of genuine enthusiasm and a spirit of inclusiveness and not out of obligatory political correctness. This is the key to making lasting changes that inspire instead of require. In these politically correct times, where people are offended at the very whiff of anything other than neutrality, it is important that we reserve the right to question the motivation behind proposed legislation, especially when it concerns our Canadian identity.
I suspect that if the changes are adopted every national anthem sung en masse from here on in will contain both the old and the new, as some people will inevitably prefer to sing the version that means the most to them. Any voices of dissent will gradually fade away and the anthem will take on new meaning and morph with the times. It has done so since 1880.
“O Canada” is a statement about who we are as a country. We sing it, know it, and feel it. It’s been with us most of our lives. It still opens nearly every major sporting event, and when push comes to shove the anthem is Canada’s rallying cry.
The proposed changes are reasonable but we don’t want to dissociate ourselves from the era of our “sons.” It was an important time and one we can be proud of on many fronts. We are not at war today but without the sacrifice of our many sons we might still be.
Ryan Moffatt is a Vancouver-based arts reporter, musician, and pop-culture pundit.