Why I won’t be getting my knickers in a knot about the new “O Canada” lyrics

Today a private member’s bill was passed in the Canadian Senate that officially changed the lyrics of “O Canada” to a gender-neutral phrasing from the line “In all thy sons command,” to “In all of us command.”

As could easily be predicted, the anti-PC crowd is out crowing about the change, and how it disrespects our veterans and we shouldn’t be changing an institution of Canadian heritage.

But I won’t be getting my knickers pants in a knot over it.

I grew up in a bilingual school and spent a great deal of time in Quebec when I was younger. We learned the anthem in both official languages. It wasn’t uncommon to switch from fully French, to fully English, to a hybrid version.

Interestingly the fact the anthem is even in English should upset some of these so-called traditionalists.

The anthem we love so dearly was originally written in Quebec in 1880 – the lyrics by Adolphe-Basile Routhier and called Chant National, and you guessed it: it was completely en Francais. In fact, it is believed that it wasn’t first sung in English until sometime after 1900.

Here is a first version of the direct translation to English by Thomas B. Richard, that was published, in 1906:

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

Hardly close to the words we sing today. In fact, his translation was not well received by Anglo-Canadian audiences and as such a competition was organized by Collier’s Weekly to find a more suitable translation. On August 7, 1909, this version by Mercy E. Powell McCulloch was announced as the winner of that competition.

O Canada! In praise of thee we sing;
From echoing hills our anthems proudly ring.
With fertile plains and mountains grand
With lakes and rivers clear,
Eternal beauty, thos dost stand
Throughout the changing year.
Lord God of Hosts! We now implore
Bless our dear land this day and evermore,
Bless our dear land this day and evermore.

Several other versions were developed and had moderate degrees of success over the next few years.

However, it was in 1908 that the basis of the English anthem we know today was published, written by Robert Stanley Weir a lawyer and recorder with the City of Montreal who would later become a judge. At the time of publishing it had these lyrics:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,

We stand on guard for thee. 

Refrain

O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee. 

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea;
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!
(Refrain) 

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies
May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,
To keep thee steadfast through the years,
From East to Western Sea.
Our own beloved native land,
Our True North, strong and free!
(Refrain) 

Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion within Thy loving care.
Help us to find, O God, in Thee,
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day
We ever stand on guard.
(Refrain)

The lyrics were amended numerous times from this original version until on June 18, 1980, a bill was presented by Secretary of State Francis Fox proposing that “O Canada” be declared Canada’s official national anthem, using the lyrics that have stood until this day. The National Anthem Act was passed unanimously by the Senate and the House of Commons on June 27, 1980, and received Royal assent the same day.

The fact is the World War veterans who are supposedly venerated by this song never knew it as their anthem, they would have known “God Save the King” and “God Save the Queen” as their anthems. The original lyrics of the song “thou dost in us command” were gender neutral, and it is supposed that the change of lyrics to “in all thy sons command” was made in a time where there was conflict around women’s suffrage, coupled with the war efforts, which were a proverbial thumb to the women’s suffragette movement.

What is lost on those complaining today is that numerous females served (albeit in non-combat roles) as nurses, clerks, administrators – and kept Canada and their families running while the war efforts were occurring.

So when you boil it all down, there are no good reasons to fret about the return to gender neutrality of the anthem; no veterans who would have served in either of the great wars could reasonably be offended, and just as we have grown to know and love our anthem, children who tomorrow will begin learning the new words to the anthem will be none the wiser 35 years from now.

There is plenty of precedent for the evolution of the words of this song, and these so-called traditionalists are misguided and misinformed as to what the true roots of this song are.

You can read in more detail about the history of the Canadian National Anthem in its different evolutions here. All of my material and background was sourced from The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

 

 

 

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