Dreams of a gender-neutral O Canada are over — for now

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Canadians will not be singing a gender-neutral national anthem on Canada Day after a bill before Parliament to officially change the lyrics has stalled.

The House of Commons overwhelmingly passed a private member’s bill last summer that would alter the national anthem by replacing “in all thy sons command” with “in all of us command” as part of a push to strike gendered language from O Canada.

Although the bill sailed through the House with government approval, Conservative senators opposed to the changes have scored a victory in the Red Chamber. A yearlong campaign successfully punted a vote on the bill until the fall, at the earliest, and even then the legislation faces an uncertain future.

“I’m trying to protect the tradition rather than, you know, water it down with a politically correct version that is historically inaccurate,” Conservative Senator David Wells said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

David Wells talks about Ches Crosbie and John Crosbie fiasco

Newfoundland and Labrador Conservative Senator David Wells is steadfastly opposed to changing the lyrics of O Canada. (CBC)

“I don’t misrepresent why I’m [using parliamentary stall tactics] … I don’t like this bill, and I will do what I can to ensure it doesn’t pass.”

Wells and a number of other senators have said they oppose efforts to tinker with the lyrics written by a man long dead.

(The lyrics have been changed since they were first penned by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, but not since O Canada officially became the country’s national anthem in 1980.)

The late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger introduced the bill, and many MPs backed the legislation as a salute to a colleague on his death bed.

“The bill was passed in the House compassionately and out of sadness for a dying colleague. While that is touching, it is not the way we make public policy in this country and it is not the way we do our legislation,” Ontario Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak said.

Senate amendments stall bill

A flurry of amendments were introduced to the bill in the last few weeks of the parliamentary sitting — all failed to pass in the face of opposition from most Liberal and Independent senators — which dragged out debate considerably. Parliament rose for summer break before a final vote at third reading could be held.

Ramona Lumpkin, the chancellor of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, and a strong proponent of the bill, said she was deeply disappointed by the developments.

“We’re so close and I really regret that there are a few senators who seem to have dug in and decided to delay. I hope it’s not a permanent block,” said Lumpkin, in an interview with CBC News.

Ramona Lumpkin

Ramona Lumpkin, the chancellor of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, says Conservative stall tactics are disappointing. (Mount Saint Vincent University)

“It’s not as if the words were brought down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets like the Ten Commandments, they are words created by humans and subject to change as our social and cultural conditions change, and thank goodness they do,” she said.

‘Political correctness run amok’

Wells said national symbols cannot be altered to simply adhere to the “flavour of the day.” He said Canadians were not consulted by the government and that there hasn’t been an adequate conversation about a fairly significant change.

“I’ll be working my hardest to delay this bill until there’s a full debate,” he said. “I get a lot of emails, and many comments to me personally, from people who don’t want to see the anthem change, who see it as a part of our tradition and who see this attempt to change it as political correctness run amok. It is a slippery slope. Calls for inclusion will always be there, but my belief is all Canadians are already included in the national anthem.”

He said pictures adorning the walls of the Senate depict men in combat during the First World War. “Would we now airbrush females into those pictures to accurately reflect what it might be today with those pieces of Canadians’ history? My answer is no, that would be an abomination, and I think that’s what it is with the anthem as well.”

‘I think the gesture, even though it’s symbolic, would say a lot to young women.’ Ramona Lumpkin

If the bill is amended in the Senate it would be sent back to the House for another vote. As per parliamentary rules, because Bélanger is dead, MPs will have to unanimously agree to replace him as sponsor or the bill drops from the order paper; that is unlikely given entrenched opposition from some corners of the chamber.

“That worries me,” Lumpkin said. “I know language matters and I talk to students and young women regularly who still feel their voice doesn’t carry as strong as the voice of their male friends. I think the gesture, even though it’s symbolic, would say a lot to those young women.”

The Liberal government could also choose to introduce legislation of its own — with the same wording — to avoid some of the problems that often befall private member’s bills; namely, the government could invoke time allocation to prevent procedural time delays.

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Dreams of a gender-neutral O Canada are over — for now

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