“Thousands of little girls are being told they are not important every time they stand up to sing it.” I used that quote in my newspaper column in The Carillon in March of 2002. I was advocating for a change to more inclusive language in Canada’s national anthem.
My column came at a time when Vivienne Poy had introduced a motion in Canada’s senate to have the words of the anthem ‘in all our sons command’ changed to ‘in all of us command.’ Her motion was defeated. Now fourteen years later the Senator’s suggested change will become a reality thanks to Mauril Belanger, a longtime Liberal Member of Parliament who drafted the legislation that will make the words of our national anthem include all citizens. Parliament passed Belanger’s bill on June 15. After the legislation receives approval from the Senate it will become law.
My 2002 column recognized the work being done by a Steinbach woman Sybil Shaw Hamm. She had started a petition supporting the proposed changes to the anthem. In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press Sybil said she was trying to garner as many signatures as possible for her petition before sending it off to Senator Poy. Sybil wanted the senator to know there were people in Manitoba who supported her move to have the lyrics of the anthem altered. It was Sybil who gave me the quote that begins this column. Sybil went on to say she wanted her granddaughters not to feel left out when they sang the national anthem. In a wonderful piece she wrote for CBC radio Sybil speculated how people might respond if the anthem’s lyrics were changed to ‘in all our daughters’ command.’
In last week’s Carillon newspaper, columnist Michael Zwaagstra, the former President of the Provencher Conservative Association, stated that public hearings needed to be held before changes were made to the anthem. One has to wonder why public consultation on inclusive anthem language is required, when during the last election Zwaagstra’s party felt another important feminist social issue; that of murdered and missing aboriginal women, needed no further public inquiry.
Zwaagstra’s other opposition to the anthem change is the way it will alter the poetic cadence of the song. That didn’t seem to bother Robert Stanley Weir who while writing the original English version of O Canada in 1908 actually used the phrase ‘thou dost in us command.’ He only changed it to ‘in all thy sons’ command in 1914. An article in the Canadian Encyclopedia suggests this change may have been made as a way to counteract the growing strength of an increasingly vocal group of suffragettes lobbying for women to be given the right to vote.
Patty Hajdu, Canada’s minister for the status of women in our nation’s first gender balanced cabinet, has said changing the words to the anthem is a symbol of our country’s strong commitment to gender equality. I agree. I think it is very fitting we are changing the words to our national anthem in the same year we are marking the one hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote in Canada. It is one way to honor the work of those who fought valiantly to obtain suffrage for women. It also honors the contributions of millions of skilled and creative Canadian women who have contributed to our country in a myriad of important ways thus displaying their true patriot love. Altering the words of the anthem is a small but significant change that will show new generations of Canadian girls they too are important to the future of their country.