Author Margaret Atwood caused some big ripples in Canada’s little pond this week when she joined a campaign to return our national anthem to an earlier, gender-neutral version.
For those of you, and you are legion, who don’t know the words, the current official version of the song makes reference to “all our sons,” replacing “all of us” in the anthem’s previous, though not original, edition.
You need search no farther than the National Post to find arguments on both sides of this conflict. Barbara Kay takes the position that, since all our sons were inserted into the song in 1914 when Canada was sending them to die by the thousands in a foreign imperial war, it would offend “actual history and respect for our fallen” to include daughters. Kay fails to mention the 3,141 Canadian women who served as nurses in that particular bloodbath, or the 46 who died in the line of duty.
Kay’s colleague Jonathan Kay – I have no idea if the two are related – stays with the military angle while taking the opposing view that “all our sons” is an offence to the women who serve in the armed forces today. He refers in particular to those women who have fought in Afghanistan, pointing out that the mother of Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian woman to be killed while fighting, is involved in the
campaign to restore the anthem.
To change the national anthem is a laudable goal, but the current campaign falls short, neglecting as it does the fact that, in addition to excluding girls and women and celebrating one god to the exclusion of all others, Oh Canada distinguishes itself by being an uncommonly bad song. An attempt to render a French song into English without actually translating the words, it’s an appalling piece of team-writing, poorly penned in the first place and badly damaged by revisions. The lyrics are gibberish, the music a dirge.
Consider the line in contention: “Oh Canada, our home and native land, true patriot love in all our sons command.” The original line was “true patriot love thou dost in us command,” a clear statement of love for one’s country, if somewhat marred by the 19th-century fashion for biblical language. The 1914 revision turns the song into an entreaty to the country to command the loyalty of its sons, though oddly enough the loyalty required of them was to another country altogether.
And what of those of us for whom Canada is our home, our country of citizenship, but not our native land? If we weren’t born here, should we pretend we were, or mumble through that part, like the atheists in the next row singing “Mwum mwum our land, glorious and free”?
Barbara Kay believes Oh Canada’s greatest moment came when it helped to inspire 600,000 young men to march off to a pointless shambles, to wager their lives against the lives of young German men over a family quarrel between royal cousins. Sixty-seven thousand Canadian men died in the Great War, 150,000 were wounded, and few indeed returned unscathed. It’s very clear why we commemorate that; less clear is why we would choose to celebrate it.
Though a century old, the English version of Oh Canada didn’t become our official anthem until 1980, prior to which we had to borrow Britain’s, giving rise to the question, why bother to replace one rotten song with another? Is there, indeed, a national anthem that doesn’t make the listener grind valuable enamel away at every hearing?
Take a look at The Star Spangled Banner. True, it has a stirringly bombastic tune, which is more than Oh Canada can claim, but oh say, can you figure out what it’s supposed to mean? Or consider God Save the King/Queen, a 13th-century polemic against the Scots that doesn’t even get to retain its name when the gender of the monarch changes.
La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, celebrates the Reign of Terror, and asserts that only impure blood floods the country’s gutters. Deutschland Uber Alles, with elegant Germanic simplicity, makes the point all the others struggle toward: we (insert country name) are “above all, above everything in the world.” Perhaps if we all stopped telling each other this the world might eventually evolve into a less frightening place.
Today, the best reason for Canada to have a national anthem is that we would look stupid at hockey games if the Americans got up and sang their own jingoistic rubbish and we didn’t have a response. So why not ditch the song we once employed to whip a generation of young men into a meaningless mass sacrifice, and write a new one? Something that celebrates equality, diversity, peace, independence, and, oh what the hell, hockey. Hockey’s what it’s for, after all.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.