As you may have heard, our national anthem will probably be changed in the very near future.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I highly recommend you read some excerpts of Dr. Chris Champion's testimony from last week's Canadian Heritage Committee.
Dr. Champion is a Canadian historian with a PhD in Canadian history and founder and editor of The Dorchester Review.
*** Dr. Chris Champion - Excerpts from his testimony at Canadian Heritage Committee on June 2nd, 2016 ***
There were many attempts to put O Canada into English, at least 18 translations before the First World War, full of patriotic and religious fervour, Madam Chair.
Many of those who tried were clergy of the Anglican or Methodist tradition, in which the country was totally steeped on the English Canadian side in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Robert Stanley Weir's was only one of these versions.
People back then knew full well that in English literature going back to Shakespeare and the authorized bible in the music of Handel, in the hymns that almost all English Canadians sang for almost 200 years the word “sons” properly understood in context commonly did not refer only to men.
The first lines of Handel's great oratorio Joshua for example are:Ye sons of Israel, ev'ry tribe attend, Let grateful songs and hymns to Heav'n ascend!
This refers to all the people of Israel, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons whom Joshua led to the promise land in the story. Likewise in Malachi's prophecy “that the saviour will come for I am the Lord I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed”.
Ye sons of Jacob refers to all the people waiting in hope, and previous generations of Canadians knew this because Canadians used to learn these stories in school.
It was part of the cultural formation so they would know where our society came from. What it means to be a free people. What it means to have rights and responsibilities. What it means to be a Canadian citizen.
When these well-formed Canadian women and girls sang O Canada they understood what the words meant.
It seems that many people today do not understand and because they don't understand they seek to change.
But seek first to understand St. Francis taught.
Some have pointed out that Weir originally wrote the line as “thou dust in us command”. True thou dust in us, just in us, dustiness. It's no wonder he changed it. It sounds like we need a vacuum cleaner.
Madame Chair, the words “in us” given the rich tradition that we come from the words “in us” sounded flat to Weir the poet, and they sound flat in my view today.
The “in all of us” is rather banal for a national anthem. As a friend of mine says they are changing poetry in to mere doggerel.
It is inferior and insipid language. In fact a quick quotation search turns up only one example of “in all of us”, and that is in the grunge singer Kurt Cobain's suicide note. Try it.
So when Robert Weir fixed that line being a good poet he elevated the language and he improved the poem, and it has stood the test of time.
One hundred years is not bad in modern English Canadian terms. Moreover, it is rooted in 3,000 years of tradition handed down from the Jews to our ancestors.
It has stood the test of time.
Generations of Canadians have memorized it and it has become part of who we are. To quote Roger Griffiths “heritage is sometimes compared to a rich tapestry once you begin pulling at loose threads you start to pick away at the image and the beauty unravels until you have eventually nothing left”.
Madam Chair, what these ladies and gentlemen are proposing is a mistake. It should be common sense that you simply don't change heritage because it's heritage.
You don't change heritage on a whim because watch out somebody else can come along and have another whim.
You are setting a precedent for pulling out the threads. You are tearing open the cloth. I'm sure they have good intentions, but they are getting short-term satisfaction, and doing long-term harm. Of course then your model becomes
I said fairly clearly in my opening remarks, the words “thy sons” are not exclusive in the context of our tradition.
It may be that in schools nowadays people are not taught much about that deeper tradition and, therefore, when they see O Canada they think hang on here, there's something wrong with this. This is sexist. This is not gender neutral, but that is simply a lack of well-rooted education in our culture and history. The equality of women and men is extremely important, but if this change is supposed to advance equality it won't do much.
How much will it really accomplish? In fact, nothing, because if we look at 500 years of our literature, in English again because we're talking about the English version, we're talking about poetry and the word “sons” has in this type of context never referred only to men.
I quoted Handel Joshua and other texts which used to be extremely familiar to Canadians. If Canadians are not familiar with them now that's unfortunate and it explains why a superficial change like this could be seen to be meaningful when really it isn't.