Don’t mess with the national anthem

Emma Teitel sings the praises of ’O Canada’
Les Bazso / Province

Update: News today — at the start of 2016 — that MP Mauril Belanger is again determined to update the lyrics of the national anthem. Here’s Emma Teitel from the last time this came up.

This month, on the heels of the castrate-David-Gilmour campaign, Canadian author and Gilmour syllabus reject, Margaret Atwood, endorsed a feminist movement aiming to restore Canada’s national anthem to a gender-neutral version. Flanked by former senator Vivienne Poy, Atwood announced that she’d like a lyric, “In all thy sons command,” to be replaced with a gender-neutral one, “In all of us command.” (When poet Robert Stanley Weir first created the English lyrics in 1908, he used the neutral “thou dost in us command,” but that wording was masculinized in 1913.) The women behind the movement have launched a website, RestoreOurAnthem.ca, and a short video calling for much-needed government intervention.

Our environmentalists take on the oil sands, our tolerant take on Quebec’s proposed charter of values, our First Nations take on massive indifference to the disappearance and murder of their young women and our self-avowed feminists—God bless them—take on a gender-specific song lyric. In Canada, the highest-profile feminist causes of the day may have the lowest stakes in human history (“Fire David Gilmour!”). They seem to concern themselves less with what harms than with what offends; so far, a seemingly ineffective tactic. But the campaign to change the national anthem, well-meaning and sympathetic as some of its proponents are (it’s understandable that Sally Goddard, mother of Nichola Goddard—the first female Canadian soldier killed in combat—would want the anthem changed) is doomed for reasons beyond public distaste for ivory-tower, armchair feminism. It’s doomed because it’s a solution seeking a problem.

Key to the campaign is the argument that “the lyrics of O Canada now exclude more than 50 per cent of our population while acting as the underlying foundation of our nation.” But the underlying foundation of our nation is not a song kids mumble after the morning bell and before hockey games. The foundation of our nation—the thing that makes us us—is our Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both of which protect the rights of women and minorities.

And that’s why Atwood and friends can’t get their Canadian sisters riled up about “all thy sons command.” The song’s lyrics, written long ago, don’t reflect the modern society in which they are sung today, which means they don’t sting the way they once would. Not only do they not harm; they don’t even offend.

Instead, they appear to pay homage to a time when men—“sons”—were in uniform, not daughters, an era in which a lot of “sons” lost their lives. It’s logical, then, that we can honour that time and sing those lyrics while fully embracing the gender equality that has taken root in our country since. Were our rights as women on the line, or our country’s state secularism (some are advocating that the government remove the word “God” as well), modernizing the anthem would be prudent. But they’re not.

When your culture rejects macho heroism and institutionalized religion, channelling those things in song and ritual is no longer dangerous or offensive. It’s quaint.

In fact, our modern egalitarian society is filled with formerly sexist and otherwise oppressive ritual that is, in the fair future, quaint and comforting. Many a progressive non-virgin woman walks down the aisle in white, arm-in-arm with her equally progressive father, where she is “passed off” to her equally progressive soon-to-be husband. Many an independent, thoughtful girl concedes when a guy offers to pay on the first date. Many a non-believer gives something up at Lent. When society ceases to be inherently sexist and religious, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily shed all rituals born from that sexism and religiosity. Some of those rituals can be a lot of fun.

Case in point: Every Friday night, my largely secular Jewish family gathers around the Shabbat dinner table to sing a song in praise of a God we may or may not believe in. One part of the song is reserved for men and, when that part comes along, the women at our table stop singing. We don’t do this because we see ourselves as inferior to the men in our family, or because we are sticklers for the rules of old (were we to join in, nobody would care) but because rituals—or lyrics—that were once indicative of an oppressive culture lose their edge when that culture no longer exists. Our silence, once symptomatic of a time and norm that wouldn’t allow men and women to sing together, has no bearing in our modern lives. It’s a ceremonial throwback: a 30-second living museum exhibit, before reality kicks in and the patriarchy goes back to helping with the dishes.