Canada's Original Think Tank

Third reading of Bill C-210, an Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender)

Third reading of Bill C-210, an Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender)

Third reading of Bill C-210, an Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender)

Third reading of Bill C-210, an Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender)

Published on 28 March 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Joan Fraser (retired)

Hon. Joan Fraser:

Honourable senators, I would like to congratulate Senator Cormier on his speech, which presented a very broad vision and appeals to our noblest sentiments. However, he already knows that I do not agree with him.

An Hon. Senator: Nice try!

Senator Fraser: Colleagues, as I have had occasion to say in this chamber before and probably will say again, I am an ardent feminist, but I do not support this bill for several reasons.

Let me start with the one that is perhaps the least important. I think the wording proposed “in all of us command” is clunky, leaden and pedestrian. It’s a fine example of what happens when you let politicians meddle. Politicians are not usually poets.

In addition to being remarkably clunky, this proposed change does nothing to address one of the ambiguous features of that line of our national anthem. Colleagues will recall the very interesting discussion we had when Senator MacDonald spoke at second reading about grammar and about the exact meaning of the phrase “in all of us command.” What does “command” refer to? Whether it’s “in all of us” or “in all thy sons,” that ambiguity remains. If we were going to be meddling, why didn’t we meddle to clarify things?

While I’m at it, this proposed amendment doesn’t address another thing I have always found objectionable in the words that a parliamentary committee devised for our national anthem, and that is the phrase “from far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

I believe this was an attempt to acknowledge and honour newcomers to this country, who, heaven knows, deserve acknowledgement and honour. Without them, we would not be anything like as good and successful a country as we are. However, “from far and wide” indicates movement. “Standing on guard” indicates taking a stationary position. I don’t know how you can “stand on guard” “from far and wide.”

Maybe this kind of objection is what you might expect from an old copy editor. You can take the girl out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the girl. However, I would suggest that if Parliament in its infinite wisdom is driven to rewrite the national anthem, we make use of the poet laureate’s services, now that we have one, rather than the services of a bunch of parliamentarians who might be passionate and eloquent, but they’re not poets.

More seriously, there is the matter of whether the national anthem should reflect in its entirety the values that Canadians today cherish and try to live up to. In theory, you can argue that that would be the right thing to do. Many in this chamber have argued it is the right thing to do — to acknowledge that Canada is not composed only of sons; it’s composed of daughters as well.

But if we’re going to be inclusive about women, what are we going to do about some of the other groups who may find themselves neglected or offended by the wording of our national anthem? For example, I wonder about the decision of that parliamentary committee to insert the words “God keep our land glorious and free.” “God” was a parliamentary addition to the national anthem. And make no mistake about it, colleagues; we’re talking about the Christian god here, not just anyone’s god. This is definitely the Christian god. Should anyone doubt that, turn your attention to the French version, the original version, of “O Canada,” which refers to “la croix,” the cross; and the valor of Canada being steeped in faith — Christian faith for sure.

What about people who are not Christian? What about people who do not believe in any god or perhaps believe in many gods? How do they feel when they’re obliged to stand and sing “God keep our land glorious and free”?

I find it unnecessary and potentially offensive to go around meddling with these things. In that case, I think the parliamentary committee should have left “God” to the conscience and the belief of individual citizens.

Our national anthem refers to “Our home and native land.” This does not, I think, refer to the indigenous peoples of Canada. I believe it refers to European settlers who came a long time ago and whose descendants have been born and raised here. Again, if you go back to the original version, it talks about the “Terre de nos aïeux,” the land of our ancestors.

In this chamber, I see around me people whose ancestors were, thank you very much, not born here. We’re very lucky and glad to have them all. Why are we excluding them from our national anthem if we’re trying to make it properly inclusive and reflective of our values?

The fact is that national anthems very rarely reflect today’s values, or what “today’s values” might be at any given point in time. National anthems all over the world have a marked tendency to be bloodthirsty, ethnocentric, focused on a single religion and otherwise not inclusive.

Let me give you some examples. The Brazilian national anthem includes the words, in translation, “a son of thine flees not from battle; nor do those who love thee fear their own death.” That anthem also refers to the cross, incidentally.

The Russian anthem refers to “the land of my birth protected by God.”

Pakistan’s anthem refers to that country as a “citadel of faith.” “This flag of the crescent and star,” Muslim symbols, is referred to in that national anthem.

Italy talks about how Italians “are ready to die”. I’m not quite sure where it came from, but it’s been in the anthem for quite a long time.

Argentina says we “swear in glory to die.” Ireland says “We’ll sing a song, a soldier’s song . . . impatient for the coming fight.” Greece says “from the graves of our slain shall thy valour prevail.”

As I said when I spoke on this subject some years ago, the overarching example of a national anthem that does not reflect today’s values has to be “La Marseillaise,” which was written late in the 18th century. Given the context, you can understand the references in the “La Marseillaise” to invading armies and tyranny, but under today’s values, I think most of us have to blink hard when we get to the line that calls for impure blood to water the furrows of France.

The fact is that the value of those national anthems does not lie in the specific words they use. It lies in the fact that they have been sung by generations of the citizens of those countries.

“La Marseillaise” has been sung for more than 200 years, sung in times of war. As I understand it, the French were not allowed to sing it when France was occupied by the Nazis. To sing it at all was an act of immense heroism and dedication, and an affirmation of freedom. That’s what makes “La Marseillaise” a sacred symbol, not the specific words about impure blood. The same is true for national anthems the world over. It is true for us as well, I would suggest, colleagues.

There have been times in this country when Canadian patriotism was not something to be taken for granted. There have been times in this country when to stand up and say, “I believe in this country,” took a certain amount of courage. To sing “O Canada” was a statement of that belief and that loyalty and that patriotism. It was the singing, not the words, that mattered; it still is.

If we are to become engrossed in the idea that we must at all times be correctly modern, we lose a part of our heritage. It may not be a perfect heritage — I’m not suggesting it is — but it is ours. I suggest that it deserves respect and acceptance for what it is, imperfect but our own.

Therefore, I do not support this bill, although I have the greatest possible respect for those who do support it and for the intentions that lie behind it.


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