The View From Here – Revisionism and political correctness may deprive Canadians of enduring cultural symbols

by Tom Henihan

The lyrics of most national anthems are not typically the stuff of great poetry or profound wisdom. The lyrics are usually utilitarian, accessible and over simplistic.

People do not generally quote from their National Anthem; its significance is in the collective rendering. Its value is not in what it “says” but in what it evokes, in the same way as one might revere the flag, not because it is a work of art but because of what it represents.

Over the years, there have been a number of private member’s bills that attempted to change the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem; namely the second line, “True patriot love in all thy sons command.”

Now, Liberal MP Mauril Belanger has introduced a bill to change the irksome “in all thy sons” to “in all of us” making the lyrics gender neutral and inclusive. That Bélanger suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease and that his prognosis is not good adds poignancy to this particular effort.

Of course, analyzing the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem may not be the most constructive use of one’s time, and could possibly open up the debate to additional changes.

There are references such as “From East to Western sea,” but no mention of the Arctic. People living in the far north might justifiably claim to feel excluded and petition to have the lyrics rewritten.

I suppose the Arctic was not at the forefront of the Canadian psyche at the time of O Canada’s composition.

While the lack of inclusiveness and gender sensitivity may appear outdated, there is a lot more in those four verses that is archaic, from the fervent, declarative O, to such lines as “Beneath thy shining skies, May Stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise. To keep thee steadfast thro’ the years.”

Canada is, once again, a socially progressive, inclusive society and has a proven record on that score.

However, it also needs enduring emblems and traditions from which its identity emanates. Otherwise, Canada may appear to the new comer or to the outsider as a nation with no cultural terra firm, constantly redefining itself to suit the vagaries of every social change.

There are of course, instances that represent something reprehensible, things so offensive to our current sensibilities and moral position that a break with tradition is necessary.

A good case in point is the present debate in Halifax regarding the statue of Edward Cornwallis, the first governor of Nova Scotia who put a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children.

I believe there is an overwhelming consensus in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada that Edward Cornwallis is certainly not representative of who we are today and to have statues and street names commemorating Cornwallis is in fact an affront to Canadians, especially the Mi’kmaq.

Edward Cornwallis is of course an indelible part of the Canadian story and as such he cannot and should not be expunged from our history, but he should also not be celebrated or deemed in anyway representative.

However, as a rational, informed, adult society, we can certainly tolerate other less offensive anachronisms.

One of the of the virtues of language is that it is pliable, that it can be metaphoric rather than literal and phrases such as “all our sons” can indeed come to mean “all of us,” without any rewriting.

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