What went wrong with O Canada?


Another Canada Day, another wording change to Canada’s national anthem. The latest revision, which formally came into effect on Jan. 31, replaces “all thy sons command” with “all of us command.”

The culmination of years of pressure on the federal government, the change in fact restores that line in the anthem to its original gender-neutral meaning: “True patriot love thou dost in us command.” Robert Stanley Weir, the Montreal lawyer (later a judge) who wrote the English version of O Canada in 1908, revised the line five years later, on the eve of the First World War, to “all thy sons command” and that was the version that stuck. For most Canadians in the last century, the reference to “sons” was an acknowledgement of the over 110,000 sons killed and 225,000 wounded in the two world wars. With most of the survivors of the latter of those two fratricidal bloodbaths now departed, Canadians can apparently move on.

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Inasmuch as a song is a work of art and not just a piece of government propaganda, stitched together by a tin-eared committee, Judge Weir would probably shriek at the guttural sound of his once noble line, and given the contemporary Canadian accent, it will, tragically enough, come out in some hockey rinks as “in ull uv us cummand.” O Tennyson, where art thou?

But the change that Weir’s heirs actually fought against was the one introduced in 1980 that changed not only the sound but the meaning of the anthem’s most important line: “O Canada, glorious and free.” Opening the refrain after the majestic buildup to the crescendo, this line was the very soul of the song. “O Canada, glorious and free.” From the 1920s through the 1970s, children belted it out in school gyms with the gusto of mini Van Morrisons. That line inspired, unified, and said it all.

The unnecessary change of the anthem’s most powerful and unifying line – to “God keep our land glorious and free” – immediately divided Canadians between secular and religious, Christian and non-Christian, and that was most likely its purpose, since division is the name of the game in federal politics. What all that religious debate glossed over was the fact that the new words were aesthetically awful. Canadians, as a rule, never sing them with the same passion as the old words. In one stroke, Ottawa had muted and mutilated the anthem’s strongest line, turning a bold declaration of Canada’s glory and freedom into a clunky Davidic plea that our glory and freedom not be taken away. No wonder Weir’s heirs were opposed – they could probably picture the judge spinning in his grave. It had nothing to do with being against religion. It had everything to do with being for our anthem.

What’s done is done. The beauty of living in Canada is that we can sing our anthem any damn way we like, or not at all. Isn’t that what it means to be glorious and free?

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