March 2, 2010
By Janet Keeping
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
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.