OTTAWA, Ontario >> It’s just two lyrics. But it took decades to change them.
Canada’s Senate on Wednesday approved changing the words of “O Canada,” the country’s national anthem, to make the English-language version gender neutral. The move came after decades of unsuccessful efforts, and some last-minute political drama.
Now the second line of the anthem, which gained official status only in 1980, will soon become “True patriot love in all of us command” rather than “in all thy sons command.”
“It may be small,” said Sen. Frances Lankin, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, to reporters on Wednesday after the vote. “It’s about two words. But it’s huge in terms of one of our major national symbols, the anthem we sing with pride about our country. And we can now sing it with pride knowing the rules will support us, the law will support us in terms of the language and we will sing — all of us.”
Since Canada hosted the Winter Olympic Games 10 years ago, Canadians have been less reluctant to wave their flag (the current maple leaf version of which was only adopted in 1965) and to sing “O Canada.”
Outside of Quebec, “O Canada” is dutifully sung each morning by schoolchildren, often in a variation that mixes French and English, and before some sports events, particularly ones involving teams that also play in the United States, like those in the National Hockey League.
Although “O Canada” is not heard much in Quebec, outside of the Bell Centre where the Montreal Canadiens play, it was created in 1880 by French-speaking Quebecers. It was created as an alternative to “God Save the Queen,” which then had official status as the country’s royal anthem, a designation it retains.
Twenty years later, the music by Calixa Lavallée was adopted by some English-speaking Canadians, but translations of the lyrics, a poem by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, did not catch on. A torrent of English variations followed, partly spurred on by competitions. The winner, ultimately, was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer in Montreal.
The first version was gender neutral with the second line: “True patriot love thou dost in us command.”
Why or when that lyric was changed to “in all thy sons command” is unclear. But complaints about the exclusion of women surfaced as early as the 1950s when “O Canada” was very much an also-ran as the nation’s unofficial anthem to “The Maple Leaf Forever,” a patriotic song in which Canada is created and shaped by British military victories, including the conquest of New France.
Unsurprisingly, that song was unpopular in French-speaking Quebec and among indigenous people and immigrants.
Since 1980, several different groups, among them one that included author Margaret Atwood, tried to prod Parliament into making the change. A dozen bills introduced over several years all failed to pass.
The bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday was a dying man’s wish. It was introduced by Mauril Bélanger, a Liberal member of Parliament, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis shortly after his party, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, took power in 2015.
With the government’s support it passed in the House of Commons about two months before Bélanger died in 2016.
But Conservatives opposed to the change stymied its progress through Senate, whose members are appointed rather than elected. An unusual move to limit debate forced the vote Wednesday.
It is still unclear exactly when the change will take effect. The governor general has to give it “royal assent” — a formality — and then a date proclaiming its coming into force has to be set.
So any Canadian Olympic medal winners who do sing the new version at the upcoming Winter Olympics may be doing so unofficially.