It is Canada’s 150th birthday today. Later on, after celebrating with family and friends, I will be with a large group of people at the Forks, the historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where trade and settlements go back thousands of years.
We will sing O Canada, and – as I have done every time since 2003 – I will change the words from “true patriot love/in all thy sons command” and sing instead “in all of us command.”
In 2003, I began teaching history to students in the Canadian military, through the Royal Military College. The first time I looked at my class list, then out into the room, I knew I could never sing those outdated and entirely inaccurate words again.
The number of women in the Canadian Armed Forces – in all branches, including combat arms – continues to rise. It is a reflection of the ideas about equality that underpin what we do as Canadians, even if we need constant reminders about past (and present) injustices.
It’s not just about what we do, either, but about who we are as a nation and who we are, as citizens.
The proposed change to the national anthem to bring the rest of the country in line for today with what I have been singing for fourteen years have been thwarted by unelected, largely Conservative, mostly (if not entirely) white and male senators.
On a day when we mark our birthday as a nation, their actions remind us how the self-serving and self-interested defence of unmerited privilege threatens the sustainable future not only of our country, but of the whole planet.
It would be easy to associate their actions with patriarchy and misogyny – the barriers that women world wide, including in Canada, must continue to overcome. I consider their attitude more insidious and dangerous than that, however – it is what lies behind racism, religious intolerance and hatred of those who are different, for whatever reason.
More specifically, it is the same attitude that protects personal and corporate privilege, the power to continue to do as one pleases, regardless of the social, cultural or ecological consequences. It is what we have to overcome, and quickly, in order to make the changes to how we live together on this planet, if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to have any kind of a sustainable future.
It may seem a leap to associate those few, unchanged words with such an outcome, but (as national anthems tend to be) they are symbolic of who we are and who we should be as citizens of Canada — and of Earth.
Those women in uniform who looked back at me in that first class had made the personal choice, for their own reasons, to serve Canada at the risk of their own lives, if necessary. They had chosen to protect the people and the institutions of the country, even those mostly white and male Conservative senators. It seems a small thing to offer the nation’s respect for their service by changing a few words.
I’m an historian, so the various attempts at historicizing the national anthem and claiming purity with past traditions as justification for leaving things unchanged are just as lame to me as they sound. It is not about protecting tradition, but preserving privilege.
Things change – and so they should. As First Nations people remind us, the historical record of settlement and colonization reflects many injustices toward aboriginal peoples in Canada.
Our record of injustice toward the other children of Earth who are not human is even worse. We are called “to live with respect in Creation” just as much as we are called to live with respect toward each other.
If we had an anthem for being citizens of Earth, those should be lyrics it includes.
For now, for all of us, and for a sustainable future, those few words can make a difference in how we think about each other and our collective responsibility toward those who will follow us in this place.
O Canada, our home and native land.
True patriot love, in all of us command.
If you are a Canadian, please choose for yourself to sing those words, every time you have a chance to sing the national anthem.
It’s not about who we were, but who we are – and about whom we hope to become.