Don’t worry Conservative caucus, a gender neutral national anthem will not guarantee women equal rights.
(Nor will it open a Pandora’s Box where our national symbol, The Beaver, is no longer a just an animal with a wood problem. wink.)
Since 1980, there have been 10 private member’s bills (PMB) asking Parliament to change a single line in our national anthem, making it more inclusive. MP Mauril Belanger’s PMB is the 11th such attempt. What these PMBs are presenting is simple. The modification of one line. The change being proposed substitutes “of us” in place of “thy sons”.
The National Anthem, as we sing it now, was changed once already in 1913 from “True patriot love thou dost in us command,” to “In all thy sons command”.
Bill C-210, “An Act to amend the National Anthem Act” is one of those bills that get tabled each session, and then (largely due to the governing party’s choice to blind parliament from recognizing gender inequality) either gets defeated or dies on the order paper.
(Quick note: when a bill “dies on the order paper” it basically means that time has run out in the session and that bill wasn’t considered important or timely enough to keep session going to debate it and/or vote on it. Imagine “dying on the order paper” to be the same thing as planning to leave for two weeks knowing there is a head of lettuce in your fridge. You could eat the lettuce, but you order pizza instead – because pizza. Then you leave for holiday and some poor soul comes into to clean your house so that you have a fresh fridge to fill with future rotting vegetables.)
It is certain that Bill C-210 will pass. Its sponsor, MP Mauril Belanger, is a member of the governing party and has the support of the NDP opposition. Moreover, MP Belanger is suffering with ALS. This is very likely his last parliamentary session, and as this bill has been his legislative focus for a number of years, it is being strongly supported by his colleagues to pass before he is no longer able to be in the House.
This bill is, like many PMBs are, a response to a grassroots campaign. The “Restore our National Anthem” movement celebrates the anthem, and has been a consistent voice for a gender neutral anthem. Founders include former Prime Minister Kim Campbell and author Margaret Atwood, and has strong roots in political spheres. The site even provides direct action tools – making it easy for constituents to contact their MP and also to track their MP’s votes on this issue.
The bill was tabled for first reading in January and then saw second reading this past week. After the first hour of debate on second reading, in which MP Belanger introduced the bill and both opposition parties spoke to it, the Conservatives chose to put up enough speakers to fill the full hour.
In MP Belanger’s introduction of second reading, he commented that, “As Canadians, we continually test our assumptions, and indeed our symbols, for their suitability. Our Canadian maples have deep roots, but they also have continual new growth, reaching to the sky. Our anthem too can reflect our roots and our growth.” MP Belanger presented that no symbol should be so sacrosanct that we as Canadians cannot debate it’s suitability or it’s representation.
The original anthem, written in 1908, was changed in 1914 to incorporate the term “sons command” – often attributed to the effect of war on Canada’s fledgling nationhood. The current of opposition from Conservative caucus members argued that the change in language sets a precedent – threatening other national symbols. MP Karen Vecchio (Elgin—Middlesex—London) damningly charged that, “changing the anthem would open up Pandora’s box”.
In many ways, this is a shared struggle in so many stories of feminist activism in oppressive spaces. Symbols and ceremony are only as good as the actions out of which those meanings are forged.
NDP Critic for Status of Women Sheila Malcolmson (Nanaimo-Ladysmith) commented that, “The things that are going to make the difference on the ground are going to be the measures that affect people in their everyday life, but symbols are important. To me, it is just such a given – it has come so to close to passing, even quite recently. Our allies in the labour movement, and feminists activist organizations, we’re talking about other stuff.”
This change, symbolic and hardly threatening to the male-dominated spaces of political power, isn’t particularly radical. It could be interpreted to acknowledge that women are just as valued in public spaces as men. It could be interpreted to demonstrate a commitment to equality in all spaces. At its most, it could wriggle its way into the young minds of children from coast-to-coast-to-coast that sing it every day at school, and perhaps the genderless nature may empower the next generation to see things differently.
That is putting a lot of pressure on the National Anthem.
In speaking to the office of Liberal MP Greg Fergus (Hull-Alymer), they expressed disappointed in what happened the day of second reading. Fergus is a long time friend of MP Belanger, and his office commented that both the Liberal caucus and the NDP caucus were working together to pass the Bill by moving second and third reading together, a procedural move that would hasten the bill’s passage into law in one fell swoop. MP Fergus’s office expressed a bitter confusion as to why the Conservative’s would use such procedural tactics to block the bill from being passed expediently, when it will be passed eventually regardless of how the Conservative caucus votes.
MP Belanger’s colleagues in the Liberal and NDP caucus are still working to bring it to the floor of the House before the end of this session in order to pass it before MP Belanger is no longer able to witness the act.
It’s a dainty step in the struggle for equality.
(Authors note: I did reach out to the office for the Official Opposition Critic to the Status of Women, MP Rona Ambrose, but MP Ambrose, nor her staff replied to the request at the time of publishing.)