The Canadian Senate may soon kill a bill that alters our national anthem to make it more gender inclusive.
The bill introduced in the House of Commons by the late Liberal MP Mauril Belanger and passed by a majority vote, would change the phrase ‘in all thy sons command’ in O Canada to ‘in all of us command.’ The bill is awaiting Senate approval to become law. Senator Don Plett and some of his colleagues may prevent that from happening. Plett has introduced an amendment to the bill that would return the contentious phrase in the song to its original 1908 wording ‘thou dost in us command’.
The wording Plett is championing is also gender inclusive but here’s the problem. If the Senate amends the bill it has to go back to the House of Commons to be voted on again. Since Mr. Belanger has died members will have to agree unanimously to let another MP sponsor the bill. Some members may refuse to agree because they don’t want to change the words of the anthem. Thus the bill will die.
Plett is aware this could happen but won’t withdraw his amendment. He says he isn’t comfortable tinkering with the song’s language even though the Toronto Star reports the anthem’s words have been altered many times in the past. I wonder if those who oppose making the anthem gender inclusive would feel the same way if the phrase in question said ‘in all our daughters’ command.’
In a Senate speech Plett claimed our anthem shouldn’t change because it reminds us of where we came from. The current version which uses the word ‘sons’ to refer to Canadian citizens does remind us of the past when women weren’t persons in Canada. They were their husbands’ and fathers’ property. They couldn’t vote and their contributions went largely unrecognized. Mr. Plett is right. It is very important to remember where we came from. We come from a time when women were victims of all kinds of abuse because they had fewer human rights than men.
Anyone watching the new television version of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s chilling story The Handmaid’s Tale will recognize just how vital it is not to take for granted what women have gained in their fight for equality. Atwood’s tale reminds us there is great peril in forgetting the negative ramifications of patriarchy, not only for women but also for society as a whole. I wonder if Mr. Plett and his colleagues are thinking we need to maintain the sexist version of our national anthem so we remember those terrible times and continue to fight for equality? Somehow I doubt it. There is a time for looking back at the past but our national anthem should inspire us to think about a better future.
‘In all of us command’ represents reality. Women can serve in our country’s armed forces in all the same roles as men. Women make up half our government’s cabinet.
The current debate about the anthem reminds me of something that happened in a church I attended in the 1980s. I asked for the church constitution to be changed removing the pronoun ‘he’ from descriptions of duties for elected offices in the church. A number of women held these offices but they were still being referred to as ‘he’ in our constitution. My suggestion caused so much debate and alarm I almost left the church.
But that was more than three decades ago. Surely people have realized by now that language is powerful and can exclude and marginalize. Language isn’t stagnant. It is ever evolving just as the role of women in Canadian society continues to evolve. Hopefully Mr. Plett and his like-minded senators can come to see that.