By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via CP.

On making O Canada, ‘gender-neutral,’ someone once said, “Honourable senators, it is clear to me that we all have a stake in ensuring the equality of opportunity for future generations. We need to show Canadians that parliamentarians have the will to give real meaning to equality for all Canadians.” But you’re mistaken if you thought the speaker was the late Mauril Bélanger, it was, in fact, Senator Vivienne Poy – and it wasn’t spoken when the proposal awaited its final vote last week in the Senate, but rather, fifteen years ago when Senator Poy (who no longer sits in the Senate) first proposed amending the National Anthem Act to change the English lyrics from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command” (at the suggestion of music historians and linguists.)

When we sang O Canada last week during the celebrations, we’d have been singing “in all of us command” quite naturally if Senator Poy had been successful then to amend the national anthem’s lyrics. Nine attempts later, in the decades-long project to bring gender-neutrality to O Canada, the latest bid, Bélanger’s final bill as a Member of Parliament, is poised to be delayed, stalled and possibly killed in the Senate using a number of procedural tools available to Conservative senators.

Rather than be adopted in time for Canada Day, the final vote for the bill’s third Senate reading was delayed once more till the fall with the Senate adjourning. If the Senate ultimately approves any amendments to the bill, it effectively kills the bill because the House would need unanimous support of the House to adopt amendments since its original proposer, Bélanger, died last summer. Unanimous support is unlikely since the very predicament that surrounds Bill C-210 was the result of the House’s Tories denying unanimous support last year to a motion to add a co-sponsor retroactively to Bill C-210.

In Senator Poy’s time, the Senate at its best could be an intellectual sanctuary for egalitarianism – these days, however, the red chamber is proving itself a stubborn and partisan roadblock against recognizing gender equality in O Canada.

Senator Poy, in her address to the Senate more than fifteen years ago, took the opportunity to read out poignant letters she had received from Canadians, both male and female: all of them wondering why Canada’s anthem ought to continue to exclude women from the lyrics. These testimonies exist in our Hansards as a record that eludes the conventional criticism of updating language and symbols; when the proposed reforms are beginning to accrue as storied a history as the official lyrics themselves, it’s hard to argue the reform is based on a mere whim.

But whim, Senator David Wells suggests, this latest incarnation of the reform is.

Wells, a Harper appointee, told the CBC recently that the anthem should not be changed to reflect “the flavour of the day.” Presumably when Senator Wells says “flavour,” he means ‘gender equality’ of course – a constitutional principle enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and when he says “day,” he’s speaking geologically (in keeping with the Senate’s usual pace of activity.)

The late Mauril Bélanger MP, who was diagnosed with ALS, uses a text-to-speech program to defend Bill C-210 (Adrian Wyld, CP.)

One of the many letters Senator Poy had received from WWII veterans included a (now twenty four year old) letter from Stuart Lindop, a veteran of the South Alberta Regiment who had fought in Holland. Lindop had written to his MP in 1993 to decry the anthem’s gender specific language. He had asked rhetorically to naysayers, “how about women in our various units?” before finding O Canada fails to “consider them worthy of mention or recognition.” He was right then and twenty four years later, he’s still right.

When Senator Wells accuses the proposal of “airbrushing” women into war-time “pictures to accurately reflect what it might be today,” he’s acting as though there’s anything to airbrush: women played far from an insignificant role in the war, participating as medics, transport, typists, mechanics, machinists, cooks, intelligence, even commanding sea vessels in the WRCNS – and they would have played a combat role even then if their requests had been met to allow them to serve!

Moreover, the year is no longer 1913 (news, I’m sure to some in the Senate.) Women have been serving in combat roles for Canada since the Charter revolution opened up the front-lines, including but not limited to the Afghanistan mission. Why confine the meaning of the “all thy sons’ command” narrowly to apply to only one era of Canada’s military history? A whole future awaits: the anthem itself, after all, is intended to last.

Indeed, our hope is it’s the song our posterity is singing.

Wells is a reactionary of the “anti-political correctness” ilk, the kind of folks who like to believe they’re protecting culture from “the PC police” – but in this case, the only people “policing” our country’s history without the unilateral authority to do so are them! It’s the proposal’s supporters, rather, who seek to democratize the country’s anthem, opening it up to recognize the changing times and public morals. Playing cultural gatekeeper, Senator Wells is attempting to dictate what military history can be honoured by the anthem (the Great War, check, Afghanistan, nay) and what history does or doesn’t count in defining women’s role in the two World Wars; while other Conservatives, like Senator Don Plett, are even attempting to dictate that if a change is made, it must be consistent with Weir’s original clunky wording (“thou dost in us command”) despite a wealth of precedent of the anthem’s lyrics being changed (by Wier himself even.)

Canadian servicewomen in WWII, no airbrushing required.

If Bill C-210 dies at this stage of the legislative process, it’ll be as a result of severe overreach by Canada’s upper chamber. Overreach, in the sense that Wells, Plett and others are going beyond the Senate’s conventional remit to abuse procedural loopholes and sub-amendments, delaying what they ought not delay.

Senators may squabble back and forth between the House over their parliamentary role (as they did last week over alcohol excise duty hikes) but the purpose of the Senate has long been glibly understood as the chamber of “sober second thought” – to quote our first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald. From “sober second thought,” we can extract some substantive roles that the Senate is expected to play as an appointed body: throttling the House’s partisanship, upholding minority and Charter rights, and vetting legislation for plausible consequences which may be unintended by their sponsors.

But on the National Anthem debate, we’ve witnessed nothing sober (“hysterical,” more like it) or second (try “eightieth”) about the opposition Bill C-210 has faced in the Senate. The good senators, Wells and Plett and others, aren’t combating partisanship in the legislative process, they’re using their position in the Senate to introduce more partisanship: gaming a system with foul play and thoughtless barbs.

They’re not vetting legislation, there’s nothing to vet in the traditional sense, they’re voting on lyrics – changes to two words. Nor are they using their position in the Senate to advance the rights of minorities or our Charter rights. On the contrary, they’re using every procedural tool available to them to delay gender equality from reaching the national anthem (and in the case of Senator Wells, proud of it.)

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to us that just as the national anthem is supposed to represent Canadians (women included), the ongoing saga to amend O Canada, from Poy to Bélanger, represents any other milestone that women have achieved in this country. Neither recognition nor respect in any form has seemingly ever been handed down from “above” willingly (without ulterior motives, that is.)

Achieving progress means carrying the weight of its detractors, kicking and screaming, with the rest of us into the twenty-first century (and what a helluva circus, it’s shaping up to be.) Next Canada Day, I hope to see Canadians singing their belief in all of us – or at the very least, mouthing the new line and hoping other folks in the crowd know how it goes. Standing between that dream and its realization is one chamber of appointed officials in Ottawa, whose right to obstruct such deliberations is tempered only by their maturity. In those regards though, unfortunately, not every senator is created equal.


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

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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