Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Legal Narratives of a National Anthem: Part I - "In all of us command"

Like other forms of popular culture, songs have the power to confer recognition and legitimacy to certain ideas, concepts and even classes of people. Equally, through modes of exclusion, they have the power to render some (or many) invisible. In this post and others to follow, I want to examine how such processes of inclusion/exclusion (intended or not) have taken place in the context of the Canadian national anthem.

Over the past few weeks there had been some talk about altering the lyrics of the English version of the Canadian national anthem (although it should be noted it's not the first time that appeals have been made to revise the lyrics).

The lyrics are as follows:

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

In the government's recent Throne Speech two weeks ago, there was a proposal to consider altering the line "True patriot love in all thy sons command" to a more gender-neutral wording. A Parliamentary committee would have been assigned the task of examining the issue. Two possible alterations were as follows: "True patriot love thou dost in us command" (from the original 1908 version penned by Robert Stanley Weir) or "True patriot love in all of us command" (a later articulation and my personal preference of the two). While some were rather ecstatic about this proposed change, many others were significantly unenthusiastic about any such alteration. The latter won out. Due to an "outpouring of opposition" the government decided to scrap plans to even examine the idea.

Undoubtedly, those who voiced objection to the changes latched on to two notions - the maintenance of tradition and the need to counteract what would be perceived to be political correctness run amok (the usual arguments that are used to challenge any progressive change). Of course this extolling of tradition is usually rather selective - the original version of "O Canada" written by a lawyer, Robert Stanley Weir did not include the words "in thy sons command" but rather "thou dost in us command" which was later changed to the version now sung as part of the national anthem (see Senator Vivienne Poy's speech).

For reasons that I shall explain below, I believe that a proposed change to the lyrics would not only be welcome in that it would be inclusive of at least half the population of this country and sung across the country in a variety of events, it would also be in conformity with the spirit of the values espoused in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular sections 15 and 28.

Section 15(1) of the Charter states:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Just to underscore the greater importance that equality between men and women are to receive under the Charter, s.28 states that: "Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons."

"O Canada" became the official national anthem in 1980 through the passage of the National Anthem Act, [N-2]. Through section 2 of the Act, "the words and music of the set out in the schedule, are designated as the national anthem of Canada." Therefore, in addition to being an important symbol of Canadian identity, it is given official status by the state through an act of Parliament. Contrary to a statement on the government's Canadian Heritage website, it is not just the melody that is set by the Act, but the lyrics as well.

The lyric "in all thy sons command" is, in a rather obvious fashion, gender specific. It formally excludes the "daughters" of the nation - including but not limited to those daughters who fight, bleed and die for it in the military, serve it through public service, and those who compete on behalf of it on the international stage in sporting events - most recently in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

The exclusion is far from abstract. As one female Canadian doctor wrote to Senator Vivienne Poy (as the latter was trying to push through an amendment to the anthem in 2002), "I remember vividly my reaction on my first day of school when "O Canada!" was sung, and I knew immediately that, as a girl, I did not count for anything in Canada."

If the National Anthem Act proclaims the words and music of "O Canada" as the country's national anthem, there is a reasonable question whether the formal inclusion of one sex through the reference to sons, but the exclusion of the other, its daughters, deprives Canadian women of their right to equal protection and equal benefit on account of discrimination based on sex.

The benefit in question is the right to be included, to be visible as part of the national narrative embodied within the song - a song sung on a daily basis throughout the land that presently keeps women invisible while the nation reaps the benefit of the work so many millions of women render to it daily. As Canadian Senator Nancy Ruth argues (paraphrasing another): "Language is the power of the ruling class to define reality in its own terms to make invisible all others!"

The lyric in question is not only an anachronism from the point of view of the Charter and the concept of equality, the forced invisibility and exclusion of women in the anthem is dissonant when juxtaposed against the resounding accomplishments that Canadian women have brought to their country, both within government and in civil society. On the latter point, it is worth mentioning that amidst the national celebrations that emerged on account of the success of Canadian athletes who won medals at the Vancouver Olympic Games, the majority (at least of the Gold medals) were won by women.

Tradition is neither immutable nor is it immune from alteration. For example, the country has seen tremendous and important changes to the concept of marriage within the confines of the law. The gender-based narrative of exclusion embedded within the national anthem is similarly subject to and indeed is sorely in need of change and reformulation to conform with current thinking and legal norms on equality.

One of the main purposes of a national anthem is to instill a sense of patriotism and national unification around a particular symbol. By excluding one half of the population, the English version of the anthem, through the explicit exclusion of "daughters", undermines the very sense of patriotism and unity it is supposed to instill.

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