By Richard Forbes.
Featured Image via Adrian Wyld, CP.

Emotions ran high yesterday as Mauril Bélanger defied expectations to return to the House of Commons. The Liberal MP, whose health has deteriorated rapidly after being diagnosed with ALS in the fall, made a critical appearance during his bill’s third reading specifically; valiantly advancing his bill to make O Canada (the English version) gender-neutral. Gabriel Ste-Marie, Bloc Québécois House leader, offered his Friday time slot to Bélanger. Telling CBC News, “It’s the least I can do.” Ste-Marie’s gesture effectively delays his post-Panama tax havens motion until after the summer break. “It’s such a sad story,” he adds. “I’ve been very touched by Mauril Bélanger and his disease … He is a great member of Parliament. I am sad to see that there could not be a consensus between parliamentarians to fast-track his bill.”

If Bélanger had not attended the sitting, Bill C-210 would have died on the Order Paper and the government would have been barred from adopting the bill as a government initiative until a new parliament convened in three years. News emerging of Bélanger’s recent hospitalization had colleagues desperately scrambling overnight to devise back-up strategies – one plan was to submit an amendment to delete the bill’s long title (and thus delaying the vote on the bill’s report stage), while another plan, to add a co-sponsor to the bill, was vetoed by some Conservatives on Thursday, heads lowered in shame as they voted, in an apparent bid to distance themselves from the human race.

But in the end, no “back-up plan” was needed. Bélanger’s emotional appearance in the House satisfied a procedural condition, the last major obstacle his bill is expected to face.

Bélanger’s bill reached the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last week where it was approved without amendments in an expedited fashion. Peter Van Loan, who later fronted the bill’s third reading debate, opened the committee regretting only one guest speaker could attend, given neither O Canada‘s composer’s grandson, nor Rudyard Griffiths, a prominent defender of preserving Canadian symbols, had been available. Also unavailable, I can only presume: Conrad Black, Zach Paikin, Calixa Lavallée’s first cousin thrice removed, Rex Murphy, a Diefenbaby, and the Canadian Tire guy.

In their place, the Tories welcomed Dr. Chris Champion, editor of The Dorchester Review (and former adviser to Jason Kenney,) to speak about the anthem and its history. As the committee soon heard, it was in Champion’s expert opinion as a historian that “sons” can be interpreted in a historical context to include women and that “all of us” as far as poetry goes is “flat,” “insipid,” “banal,” “inferior,” and “mere doggerel-” even going as far as to compare the line unflatteringly to Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter.

“Once you begin pulling at loose threads, you start to pick away at the image and the beauty unravels,” continued Champion, ending on a note of unabashed, darkly scaremongering. “…You are telling the world we are a superficial people, perhaps even lightweights. Once the tinkering begins, who can say we will not wake up and find there is a new national anthem every time we open our daily newspaper?”

The Chair thanked Champion, briskly moving the committee meeting forward where the members voted on the bill clause-by-clause – with the committee’s three conservative members, as a sign of protest, stubbornly voting against each clause, line after line – even voting against the bill’s title, “An act to amend the National Anthem Act.”

Mauril Belanger
MPs applaud Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Belanger as his private members bill on changing the Canadian anthem is debated in the House of Commons. June 10, 2016 (Adrian Wyld, CP.)

Perhaps the most curious thing about the historian-turned-poet’s shrill derision for the bill, however, was it never seemed to occur to Champion during his toboggan ride down the proverbial slippery slope that change does not need to be culturally destructive.

Rather, if we are to think of an anthem as a tapestry of song, then it stands to reason Canada’s tapestry is still being woven. The events present before us right now, this living memory of the fight to include women in our anthem may not subtract from, but rather, add to the anthem’s substance and our personal connection with it. An affirmation O Canada belongs to every Canadian, the spirit behind that change and the legacy of the man who fought for it could very well live on in the amended anthem for years to come. Many of us when we sing “in all of us command,” will think of Mauril Bélanger, his strength and determination, and how far we’ve come in recognizing men and women as equals.

And yet, “symbols should not be changed!” cries the opposition – some Tories in the second reading going as far as to speculate the beaver or the maple leaf might be threatened as symbols if the wild-eyed eco-feminists in the House were given an opportunity to fiddle with our Canadian heritage!

Fascinating, honoured members. Truly fascinating.

But all of this, all of this wrangling and willful pining over history and symbols and lyrics “that must not be changed” (post 1980, that is), is just the public face of a wider and far deeper consternation that will go unsaid and unarticulated among Tories – and that’s the recognition and acceptance of gender equality. Bill C-210’s detractors have, as they have with every gender equality debate, decided to debate its merits on any and every other point of contention that pops into their heads rather than accept this for what it is, a continuing debate on women’s rights and status.


Pathetic, tedious and cryptic as it may be, this acrimony surrounding O Canada encapsulates the modern gender equality debate.

The detractors will first challenge the change’s significance, saying something vaguely about there being “more important things to talk about,” (as was said about the anthem and, also recently, the effort to recognize a woman on the $100 Canadian bill -) making parliament out to be some sort of dusty IBM 702 processing one idea at a time, where all available time must be given to “the economy, and …important stuff.” And when this claim falls through, the same detractors will come to argue against the very change they’ve claimed is unimportant with all the passion of something of the utmost importance, accusing the proposal of violating some inviolable abstraction – national heritage, parliamentary procedure, the need for ‘consultation’, meritocracy etc.

These objectors’ need for “consultation,” especially dances around its own contradictions in claiming “no one’s heard” of the proposal and, in the same breath, that these changes no one has heard of are terribly unpopular. Unrelenting in their tortured antinomy, its critics condemn Bill C-210 for being “fast tracked,” through parliament, painting any use of process from the governing benches as exploiting the rules, and any needless delay from the opposition as a mere extension of the parliamentary process. Never does it cross these objectors’ minds the process they’re defending with absolute resolve might be part of the problem, not the concern – a system that cruelly forgoes accommodation for ill members; a private member business cycle too long, onerous and shamelessly undermined by early election calls and prorogue-happy leaders to deliver the legislation we would otherwise expect of an open parliament.

And all of this spinning, this ill-conceived logic, it should be said is simply the result of trying to find a debate to be had. Changing “all thy sons command,” to “all of us command,” is not about heritage or history or process or talk shops or polls or anything else its critics suggest: it’s about gender equality; it’s fundamentally a question of fairness and justice, and the hope to include everyone in the country’s anthem – and that’s one debate, tellingly enough, the bill’s critics have desperately avoided.

Over the past forty years, there have been ten other attempts to amend the offending line in O Canada – including one attempt launched and then quickly redacted by the Harper administration in 2010, which rather begs to question where the sexism is they sought to remove from the anthem if not still lingering in the lyrics they failed to change. Indeed, if you were to listen to the proposal’s critics, you would be led to believe the bill’s passage has been an expedited breeze, rather than a painful extension, and a bitter sweet conclusion, of a fight that’s been raging now for more than a generation.

The tragic hero of that effort, Mauril Bélanger now stands to accomplish where others failed; his showing of determination and courage yesterday likely sealing the fate of his bill amongst the cheers and ovations. The recorded vote for Bill C-210’s third reading was deferred to Wednesday, where it is expected to pass with overwhelming support, after which the bill will be introduced in the Senate. There are even hopes among some Senate Liberals, perhaps forlorn, the bill can reach royal assent before Canada Day.


Richard Forbes
 studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

Follow him on Twitter at @richardjforbes.


3 thoughts on “For a debate “not about gender equality” the anthem debate sure looks like one

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