Time for Canada’s national anthem to reflect gender equality

March 2, 2010

By Janet Keeping
President
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership

Janet Keeping
Janet Keeping

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 2, 2010/ — Like all Canadians watching the Olympic Games, I was in awe of our athletes’ talent and elated by their successes.

But I also felt an unfortunately familiar anger over the exclusionary – let’s be clear here, sexist – language of our national anthem. Why did Hayley Wickenheiser or Christine Nesbitt – to mention only two Canadian women who won gold in Vancouver – have to sing an “O Canada” that excluded them? Why is “true patriot love” of country commanded only of Canadian males?

Women have proved themselves worthy of equality time and time again – from Cyprus Mountain and the speed-skating oval to every walk of life and profession in which Canadians can be found, including in the killing and dying fields of Afghanistan.

Some critics of the push for gender equality in all facets of Canadian life will ask — pointing to the many advances Canadian women have already made – “When will they ever be satisfied?” The answer is, when we’ve achieved total equality. Why should it be otherwise? A self-respecting person never settles for less.

Sexism is discrimination

Blame it on my parents. While growing up, the thought never crossed my mind that, just because I was female, I was a lesser being. As I got older I had occasion to recognize that some people thought otherwise. But I was one of the lucky ones: when I encountered sexism I was able to see it for what it was – pure, unthinking discrimination. The sexists were wrong: I am an equally worthy human being.

And once those lights go on, they never go off. Once you really internalize that you are equal in moral worth to any person, there is no turning back. So when I first heard the feminist version of the national anthem I was hooked forever. Since then, I have sung no other. I proudly belt out, “in all of us command”, and have to quiet the voice inside that rails at the men and women around me: how can they sing “in all our sons command”? I have nothing against sons (and love mine very much), but what about our daughters?

With the passage of time, I had reached a point where I had stopped thinking much about the words of the national anthem. Perhaps it was the mellowing that comes with age; perhaps it was because I wasn’t attending a lot of sporting events, which is where I would most often hear “O Canada”.

But this changed with the 2006 death of Captain Nichola Goddard in Afghanistan. Then my passion for the issue was re-ignited in 2009 when a second woman from the Canadian Forces, Karine Blais, died in battle in Afghanistan. The death of a woman at war is, of course, no more a loss than the death of a man. But it is also no less.

Equality is a basic right

Gender equality occupies the top rung in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Notwithstanding anything else in that document, it guarantees “the rights and freedoms referred to in it . . . equally to male and female persons.” And in this respect at least, I think the Constitution reflects the values of Canadians. Even if our actions are not always consistent with that aspiration, we do actually believe in the equal worth and dignity of men and women.

But if they are to be taken seriously, such high-minded moral principles must be made concrete, which takes us to the discriminatory language of our national anthem. It’s time we amend the words of “O Canada” and recognize the “true patriot love” of Canadian women for their country. A lawsuit based on the Charter would do the trick. But I hope we don’t have to go there.

It would be even better if politicians were to show ethical leadership by introducing legislation to make the necessary, small change – just substitute “all of us” for “all our sons” and it’s done.

Editor’s Note: In the Speech from the Throne delivered on March 3, the federal government promises to “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.” 

Janet Keeping is a lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership in Calgary.

Channels: The Calgary Herald, the Calgary Beacon, March 4, Portage La Prairie, March 5, Cottage Country Now, March 10, the Assiniboia Times, March 12, the Slave Lake Lakeside Leader, April 6, 2010. Keeping also appeared as a guest on QR77 Calgary and CTV News.

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3 Responses to "Time for Canada’s national anthem to reflect gender equality"

  1. twee   March 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    CHANGE THE LYRICS.

    I went to an all girls school growing up and they could never explain to us why it was "sons". We all questioned it. This was our instinct as young girls. We knew it was wrong! I still remember the look we all got on our faces when confronting sexism as girls. Confusion, anger, indignation and finally defeat when we realized the world was not ours.

    "All they sons command" are not the original lyrics.

    I don't get the outdated, clueless mentality of those who say not to change the lyrics. They get all worked up and say things like "What are they going to do next? Take out God? Include gays?" The point is to not exclude anyone. It is not to pointedly include every person and scenario. There's a difference. And are they trying to compare men to gods?

    People who say changing it means turning our back on history need to understand that some parts of HIStory need to be destroyed (ie the period when women were deemed not Persons under the law). People who don't get this need to get themselves educated.

    The lyrics are REPULSIVE.

    Austria had "sons" in their lyrics too but they had the sense to remove it years ago. Austria! And I thought they were more sexist than us.

  2. Ronald Reeleder   March 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Are you kidding me ?? Changing the National Anthem is the most trivial thing I have ever heard!!!

    During the Olympics I watched the women as they sung our national anthem and they sang it with PRIDE. I did NOT see any of them wince or gringe when the said "sons"! This is simply stupid: We have a beautiful national anthem. Leave it alone.

    From a glance through your site it looks like you do a lot for the world and women in general! Look at stuff that affects womens lives the most.

    Why don"t you take on the fashion industry and how it portrays women as needing to be pencil thin before they are considered beautiful. Heres a BILLION dollar industry that degrades women and belittles them.

    Why not take on the medical industry where plactic surgery has become the norm. This is an indutry that tells women they are ugly and that the only way people will love you is if you look better.

    Take on the drug industry prescribing that don't cure anything.

    Take on industries that thrive off people's suffering or their low self esteem. Don't worry about our national anthem. I have lived with and around women for 49 years and not once has any one of them said that the national anthem was sexist! Stop being so trivial!

  3. Berniegirl   March 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Are you kidding me! This is going way to far. There is absolutely nothing wrong with OUR national anthem. LEAVE IT ALONE! Next thing you know you'll be wanting to take God out of it too!! Is nothing Sacred?