The other problem with O Canada’s controversial line

By Navneet Alang - Published on June 30, 2016
a Canadian flag flapping in the wind
The bill to change a line in the Canadian anthem to be more inclusive passed a House of Commons vote on June 15, 2016.

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After stops and starts for over 25 years, it finally happened: we have changed a line in Canada’s national anthem. Despite attempts in both the early '90s and 2000s, first by Toronto City Council and then Senator Vivienne Poy, a private member’s bill from Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger — who has a quickly progressing, and fatal neurodegenerative disease — passed its final vote last this month. The change? Where once we sang “True patriot love / In all our sons command,” the second line will now read “In all of us command.”

There was no end of sturm und drang over this two-word change. Newspaper columns and social media lit up with objections to the challenge to tradition and the feeling this was just political correctness gone mad. Some commentators courageously suggested modifying the lyrics was an insult to women, while Conservative MP Erin O’Toole simply argued that changing the anthem was bad because change itself is apparently bad. Among the more persuasive was the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, who suggested the change was a victory for the literal-minded. He meant that attempts to change culture by focusing on words not only misunderstands the flexibility and contextual nature of language, but tries to enforce change on culture rather than letting it happen organically.

The problem with gendered language, however, has never been that those who objected were simply too dense to understand that language has multiple meanings. It is, instead, the symbolism of the thing: that something meant to stand in for a collective, shared reflection of national character was exclusionary. Everyone knows “sons” in the anthem was meant to stand for both sons and daughters; there is little confusion over that part. The fact that “sons” has been the automatic stand-in choice to represent everyone for all this time was exactly why it needed to be changed. It’s not about being inflexible about the fluidity of meaning, but being attentive to the fact that such fluidity isn’t absolute. Words still mean things — and sons still only ever means boys and men.

The fact that one biased line in the national anthem needed to be changed was a no-brainer and barely worth discussing, let alone objecting to. I wonder if we have spent a great deal of energy talking about this latter half of the anthem’s couplet, that we’ve completely ignored the implications its equally important partner. After all, whether it’s just sons or all of us, the thing we are being commanded to do is express “true patriot love.”

Commanding someone to love their country doesn’t sound very Canadian, does it?

This may sound flippant, like some tired joke about Canadians saying sorry, but I’m referring instead to a deep, ongoing problem in Canada. Are we as a nation meant to follow the model of ethnic nationalism as practised by America or the United Kingdom, in which fierce patriotism accompanies a distinct national character? Or is Canada instead a kind of democratic experiment that eschews the idea of a national identity?

If most Canadians favour the former, it’s because it is the dominant world model. The appeal is obvious: nationalism provides a rallying point for people to gather around, but also a sense of belonging. It has been a vital part of history, from unifying disparate parts of Prussia into Germany to motivating the great projects of India and China today — countries that contain a dizzying array of cultures, languages, and histories and that deploy the idea of a unified national project to motivate the enormous upheaval of modernization.

Still, nationalism is not without its downsides. Those same national projects in places like India and China come with costs, from fostering outright racism toward foreigners, to encouraging a more singular culture in which the kaleidoscopic diversity of those countries gives way to a more “official,” mainstream idea of the nation. It’s also such notions of nationhood that are part of atrocities such as Canada’s residential schools. It is thus important for Canada to remember: an anthem that promotes valuing cultural attributes is one at odds with Canadian notions of multiculturalism itself. Despite challenges in a post 9/11, post-Paris attacks world, there is still value in the idea that in Canada one’s cultural identity should be distinct from one’s national identity. In other words, to be Canadian is about unifying under a set of political values, not cultural ones. That means things like adhering to the law and the Charter, but does not, as might be the case in America, mean that certain beliefs are considered “uniquely Canadian.”

Perhaps this gets to the root of why there was so much consternation about changing the national anthem in the first place, and why otherwise intelligent commentators reduced themselves to arguments bordering on nonsense. When national symbols are changed, at stake is the idea of Canada itself — that a desire for Canada to exhibit the same kind of reverence for history, shared culture, and heritage as other countries is being threatened. But it’s also why the change was the right one: not just because of the obvious gender bias, but because positioning our official national symbols to be as inclusive as possible is actually far closer to what Canada stands for than a blind adulation of tradition.

It would be impossible for a country as large as Canada not to have some unifying principles, and that isn’t an inherently bad thing. But in an era of the aggressive nationalism of Donald Trump and Brexit, Canada still has a chance to be something other than just one more nation-state, yet another place where narratives of national character are used to unify, but also keep people in line, and suppress minorities, too. So let those shared values be about politics, about citizenship — and not culture. And if that means not just changing things like one line in the anthem, but also the references to God, and native land —and indeed, the very idea of true patriot love — then so be it.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. 

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