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

Honourable senators, just as I proudly rise to my feet each time I hear the Canadian anthem, I stand with the same feeling today to express my support for Bill S-210, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender.)

As we all know, the Honourable Mauril Bélanger, our House of Commons colleague, my close friend and a friend to many here, is the sponsor of this private member’s bill.

It was an emotional ride through the House of Commons. Now we have it here in this chamber, the chamber of sober second thought. My goodness — how I’d like to see this bill pass before we rise! However, I do understand there is some opposition, and in our democracy every voice must be heard.

As mentioned by Senator Nancy Ruth, Bill C-210 calls for change to only two words in our national anthem from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

The purpose of this bill is to advance and ensure our national anthem conveys the progress Canada has achieved in realizing gender equality for all Canadians.

On and off the battlefield, Canadians throughout the history of our country have continuously established and challenged laws, customs and traditions in the name of them human rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms itself has emerged from this same social determination.

As was also mentioned, the English O Canada lyrics Robert Stanley Weir wrote in 1908 lacked any reference to religion, and the line we are considering today was actually “thou dost in us command.” As you can see, our anthem has already undergone a few changes over the years.

It is time, honourable senators, to keep moving forward. This bill gives us an excellent opportunity to do so.

Bill C-210 has achieved enough support from parliamentarians so far that it is now here. The Canadian public has expressed support. You heard the poll numbers of the Mainstreet poll done in May: 62 per cent in favour; 19 per cent opposed.

Symbols have changed in this country. I was thinking of discussing with my father, many, many years ago, about Canada Day. My father looked at me and he said, “It’s Dominion Day.” I was frightened. And there’s “from sea to sea.” I understood his argument because he grew up in a different era, “from sea to sea,” the Dominion of Canada. But that changed and it’s Canada Day. Nobody is flinching. No one feels any less proud of our country called Canada.

I’m trying to think of similar issues. In terms of a symbol, we have a flag that flies over our Peace Tower that we’re very proud of. Generations have grown up. How could they describe what our flag looked like before 1965? What was it about? We were proud to be Canadians, but it still reflected our colonial past. I think our flag represents who we are as Canadians.

I wish to cite Andrew Coyne’s sarcastic commentary of last week. He said:

As you move about your busy day, spare a thought for this country’s most literal-minded citizens, whose triumph in rewriting the national anthem we celebrate today. For what a strange, frightening word they inhabit.

At the risk of seeming too literal minded, I will repeat that what is being proposed is a change to only two words. Bill C-210 is a simple bill. It has nothing to do with rewriting our anthem. If implemented, the change would leave intact the core themes of the anthem, including its references to the courage and the loyalty of those who fought for the freedoms and privileges we all cherish and enjoy.

“Thy sons” fails to reflect the role of “thy daughters” in events that shaped Canada. This part of the existing lyrics also precludes members of our population from fully identifying with the sentiments our anthem was written to ignite in the human heart.

I was thinking just a moment ago that I have five uncles on mother’s side of the family. In the Second World War, they were all soldiers. They came home. My Aunt Eileen was in the army and based here in Ottawa. She lives in a seniors’ home in Sackville, New Brunswick. She was at war with Germany like the rest of this country was. What about her recognition and what she stood for as my dear aunt?

When was the last time you thought about why gender-neutral language should be used? Judging by some of the comments I’ve heard — for instance, that this bill is about, as we just heard, political correctness — I think it’s time to refresh our knowledge with a few instructive references like this one:

The use of gender-neutral language may seem unnecessary to some writers, but the consistent use of masculine pronouns leaves the impression that women should not be among the group to which the writer is referring.

Then there is this one:

Careful writers avoid language that would universalize one element of humanity to the exclusion of others.

This comes from The Law Student’s Guide to Good Writing, Professor Marc Grinker, Chicago Kent College of Law, 1994.

Though these quotations point to the writer, I’m in no way criticizing the work of the O Canada lyricist. It is not about the intent of the words. It is about their effect. With Bill C-210, we can improve that effect to enlarge and enhance our anthem’s impact today and well into the future.

Honourable senators, this bill is about respecting the rights and roles of women in society. Its purpose is to ensure our national anthem best expresses how our society has progressed and to help us make sure it continues to do so.

From where I stand, this is admirable and necessary. There is a world of difference between using gender-neutral language because we are somehow pressured to do so, and using it because it’s the right thing to do.

Replacing words that suggest bias to some people with words that engage and acknowledge all Canadian citizens equally — the outcome of doing this far outweighs any excuse not to.

Language and words are powerful. We are fortunate to be reminded of this every time we listen to and engage in discussions and debates with one another. I urge you, senators, to apply your regard for language and words to this proposal at hand, to agree to replace two words with another two words, and send a tremendous, inspiring message to the women and men of this country.

Honourable senators, though he can no longer speak, Mauril Bélanger continues to reach us with language and words that express his principles and vision — language and words I am proud to repeat to you now.

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.

Honourable Mauril Bélanger’s speech, second reading, May 6, 2016.

Thank you, honourable senators.