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Why We Should Leave Canada's National Anthem Alone

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One generation plants the trees, so that another will get the shade. The simple wisdom of this Chinese proverb perfectly describes the inheritance one generation accepts from those who came before. The Canada we enjoy today was forged by the men and women who came before us. Our connection to these people and to their time is the geography of the country we share, and the history and heritage of our nation.

This heritage is often expressed in the stories of our First Nations, our early builders and the gallant service of those who served and sacrificed for Canada. Beyond our oral and written histories, our heritage is also expressed through the symbols, artwork, poems and songs that connect our country with its past.

The simplicity and elegance of the Chinese proverb seems to be lost on the Trudeau government with their attempt to change Canada's national anthem. After only seven months in office, this new government believes they have the right to unilaterally rewrite or recast the heritage they inherited.

Even more troubling is the way they are framing the debate about the change to our anthem.

After only seven months in office, this new government believes they have the right to unilaterally rewrite or recast the heritage they inherited.

First, they are rushing a private member's bill through the House with virtually no debate because of the serious illness of the MP who introduced the bill. All members have deep sympathy for our colleague and his family, but his illness is not a reason to eliminate the ability for Canadians to have their say on this issue. MP Belanger returned to the House of Commons today to continue his advocacy and I deeply respect the dedication of my friend even though I disagree with his Bill. I don't think he would want to see no debate on an issue like this.

Second, many of the advocates for this bill are suggesting that support for the present anthem amounts to discrimination against women. Of course that is as unfair as it is incorrect. The language "in all thy sons command" does not discriminate at all, but it is a reflection of language in poetry and verse from the period. The language seems old to use today because it is old. It is meant to be a connection to our past, and it does a disservice to our history to suggest an historic slight when none actually exists.

The roots of O Canada go back to 1880 when it was commissioned by the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec to honour the important St. Jean Baptiste Day services in that province. The original French words of the song, composed by poet and judge Sir. Adolphe-Basile Routhier, were an attempt to rally citizens of a young nation and instill pride for their country.

Like most anthems, it is militaristic, nationalistic and uses allusions to the nation being on the side of right or the divine. It is nowhere near as militaristic as the national anthems of France or the United States of America with their descriptions of bloodied fields or bombs bursting in air, but anthems tend to be rooted in urging citizens to defend something greater than themselves.

If a country begins to tinker and parse the heritage of its official symbols generations after they were written or cast, where does this exercise stop?

Like the French or American anthems, "O Canada" was a patriotic song that brought people together within a young country to defend the nascent country, its people and ideals. "O Canada" became our official anthem in 1980, 100 years after it was first written. Similarly, "The Star Spangled Banner" did not become the official American anthem until 117 years after it was composed. A country and its citizens tend to embrace songs as their anthem long before politicians make them official. The French and English versions of "O Canada" and its recognition of the two founding nations of Canada led to it becoming the official anthem over the older, popular, but English-only song "The Maple Leaf Forever."

The original version of "O Canada," in French, has never changed. A variety of English translations or variations emerged in the decades after 1880, but the English version by Robert Stanley Weir emerged as the most true to themes of the original and became popular. Weir, also a Quebec judge and poet like Routhier, wrote his poem in 1908 and altered it slightly in 1913. The English version by Weir was never intended to be a literal translation of the French original, but tried to evoke the same passion through militaristic and patriotic themes.

The change being proposed today is not a return to the original song as some are trying to suggest. It is similarly incorrect when people suggest it was changed to encourage enlistment in the Great War. Weir changed the language before the war and reports suggest he returned to one of his earlier versions of the words in that stanza. Since the Bill is being rushed through Parliament, the Heritage Committee was unable to hear from Weir's grandson to learn the true origins of the change. The one witness that was permitted to be heard for a few minutes, a historian, put to rest the suggestion that the language was intended to exclude.

Until the votes last week, I had never encountered anyone suggesting they were excluded from "O Canada."

If a country begins to tinker and parse the heritage of its official symbols generations after they were written or cast, where does this exercise stop? Some have already advocated for removing reference to "native land" in the English version given Canada's poor record on several First Nations issues since Confederation.

Others have suggested removing reference to God in the anthem because it was added later or because of the need for separation between church and state. Others have decried the anthem as being too militaristic. While it is normally only the English version of the anthem that is mentioned in these suggestions, the same issues are also found in the original French poem. It mentions the land of our forefathers and mixes divine references alongside a militaristic theme. Both versions use different words, but the same imagery which is rooted in the early days of a young nation.

Until the votes last week, I had never encountered anyone suggesting they were excluded from "O Canada." This includes the 12 years I spent serving alongside some exceptional women who saluted our anthem in uniform just like I did.

Everyone who embraces what our country stands for and experiences the anthem with the glowing heart it is meant to evoke, is part of the Canadian experience. Our anthem is our connection with our history and our heritage and both should be understood when discussing the connection our anthem has to the country. Staying true to our heritage is not a defence of the social values or norms from that time, but a demonstration of our growth as a nation. I hope that our generation is confident enough to walk in the comfort afforded by the shade without pruning the limbs of the trees as we walk past.

You can watch my speech on preserving Canada's national anthem below.

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