Symbols, Poetics, and Change: A Quick Thought on the Canadian National Anthem

There are certain situations in which changing just one or two words can become matters of immense political significance. An example of such a situation has been brewing in Canada for some time, with the introduction, by a Member of Parliament who has since passed away, of a bill to change the English lyrics of “O Canada” to a more gender neutral form.

The relevant words are in the opening lines of the anthem (emphasis mine):

Oh Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command

The changed version replaces this last phrase with “in all of us command“. Earlier this week, this bill was passed by the Canadian Senate, after receiving “overwhelming” support in the House of Commons when it was voted on last year. This means that, barring some truly unusual behaviour by the Governor General, we will be singing the new form in the very near future.

download (1)Observing both the heatedness and the specific nature of the debate about this has been interesting, as in many ways both sides share certain fundamental positions about language use, rather than coming at it from completely opposite perspectives. The heart of the debate, on both sides, is about the value of the national anthem as a profound symbol of identity, and about the performative function that singing it has. Changing the lyrics is intended to signify an inclusive form of Canadianness, and to allow those of us who don’t identify with the word ‘sons’ to more fully feel the nature of our belonging as we sing these familiar words. In other words, the whole reason to change it is because this song and its words matter a lotRefusing to change the lyrics is also centered in the importance of the anthem, with the claim being that history, continuity, and the aesthetic quality of the lyrics are more significant aspects than transparent inclusiveness. Manitoba senator Don Plett, for example, said that “A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from” (quoted here). The whole reason not to change it is because this song and its words matter too much.

There are obviously some differences in beliefs about language that emerge in each of these positions. Many people who favour the ‘sons’ lyric also express a general belief that it’s okay to use words that are semantically masculine to refer to humans in general (ranging from pronouns to words like ‘mankind’, or even to common expressions like ‘Hi guys’, used in gender diverse settings). Those who prefer the change see these terms as enshrining images of men as the default and others (including women, trans, and nonbinary folks) as marked deviations from this norm. There are also positions about what constitutes “grammatically correct” language, as well as opinions about the aesthetics of the change – the move from an archaic second person possessive reference (thy sons) to a first person voicing (of us) is clearly troubling some people, as that same article above also includes an ‘ardent feminist’ who nonetheless opposes the change as ‘grammatically incorrect’. Plett himself, apparently, was willing to allow for some change to national continuity if it would keep that second person (and archaic) structure, suggesting “thou dost in us command” as a ‘less clunky’ alternative. This amendment move, of course, may simply have been an unsuccessful delaying tactic to avoid passing the bill at all, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

To my mind, what this story illustrates is less about debating moves toward gender neutral language and more about the poetics, politics, and performativity of national anthems and other similar texts that carry immense symbolic power. On that, it seems, there is much more agreement than conflict across the political spectrum.

 

 

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