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NPR Arts & Life

Inside The Small, Significant Change Just Made To Canada's National Anthem

Team Canada, walking during the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. If any of its members win a gold medal, they'll be hearing a new version of their national anthem.
Team Canada, walking during the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. If any of its members win a gold medal, they'll be hearing a new version of their national anthem.

"O Canada," reads the first line of anthem celebrating the vast country ranking second in the world on the basis of landmass. It continues, "our home and native land. True patriot love in all our sons command." Or at least it did, until this Wednesday, when that second line was officaly altered to read: "in all of us command."

The two-word change took over thirty years.

The music to "O Canada" was commissioned to mark Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day on June 24, 1880, composed by half-Canuck, half-Yankee composer Calixa Lavallée, who cut his musical teeth in the American Civil War as a cornet player. The lyrics, written in French by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, were always gender neutral in their original language, as well significantly more hawkish and religious in nature, suggesting Canada can hold the sword just as much as the cross. The English version, meanwhile, is less focused on spiritual and militaristic proselytizing and more on patriotism, which can make the bilingual version, which vacillates between English and French, more than a little odd for those who understand both.

The National Anthem Act of 1980 finally, after a range of English translations over the decades, established the official English lyrics and the long-disputed reference to "sons commanding" (a post-World War I alteration of the original 1908 translation: "Thou dost in us command"). Complaints about them began pretty much as soon as they were ensconced in law.

The initial work towards the official change was begun by now-retired Liberal Party senator Vivienne Poy, who began stumping for the alteration in 2002. Notably, "sons command" wasn't the only problem — some disputed the mention of "God keep our land," while "home and native land" denied the history of the country's First Nations. Poy, for better or worse, focused on the gendered translation.

As the first Canadian senator of Asian descent, she recalls being challenged. "I remember people saying, how can you as an immigrant, [Poy was born in Hong Kong] come into this country and change our national anthem," she tells NPR Music. "But the national anthem is for every Canadian!" Even though Poy received significant support through 2003, the motion lagged amidst a prorogation of parliament. But she kept at it: "I believed in what I was doing, and I wanted to see it done."

In 2006, Poy handed the reins of her lyric-change campaign over to Conservative senator Nancy Ruth, who kept up the discussion — before her own retirement in 2016. From there, Frances Lankin, an independent senator, took over.

While all this was happening in the Senate, the lyric change was being taken up in the House of Commons. Mauril Bélanger, a member of parliament who represents the area around Canada's capital of Ottawa, put forth a bill which was actually passed in June 2016, coinciding with his last appearance in the house before he died, of ALS, in August of the same year. In an interview with NPR Music, Mona Fortier, Belanger's successor, underlines his legacy: "He recognized that every Canadian needs to be included in our anthem. We can bring this new version to recognize who we are, internationally, nationally and locally."

Like in the U.S., both houses need to pass a bill, so it required Lankin to take Bélanger's bill and push it through to passage in the Senate. Despite a poll in late 2016 showing over 70 percent of Canadians supported the change, it still faced strong opposition, most of which was focused on preserving the "tradition" of the anthem, and arguing for the decision to be made via public referendum. Lankin respects the difference of opinion, but "there was nothing new to say after 30 years of debating this," she tells NPR Music.

Lankin acknowledges that the change will not confer equal pay or employment access on the whole of the population, but stressed that it addresses "the filters that we see our life through," and respects the ever-expansive and fluid definitions and crumbling boundaries of gender.

"That's the evolution," explains Lankin. "When this discussion started there was no public knowledge or understanding of 'non-binary,' with respect to gender. So this inclusivity includes our original goal, but it is much broader than that in today's context."

The change will be heard whenever Canada wins gold at the Winter Olympics, which began today — as long as they remember the new lyrics.

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