Some members of the Senate are determined to stop Parliament from changing the words of the national anthem, with one senator deriding the late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's proposed amendments to O Canada as "clunky, leaden and pedestrian."
Liberal Senator Joan Fraser, a self-described "ardent feminist," said the new phrasing is both grammatically incorrect and a misguided attempt to make the song reflect "today's values."
"It's a fine example of what happens when you let politicians meddle," she said of Bill C-210 to amend the National Anthem Act. "Politicians are not usually poets."
'Everybody knows the tragedy of Bélanger's circumstances, a very tragic thing — but, with respect, it's the government that treated it like the Children's Wish Foundation.' - Conservative Senator Michael L. MacDonald
Bélanger, who passed away last summer after a battle with ALS, sought to make the anthem gender-neutral by removing the phrase "all thy sons command" and replacing it with "all of us command."
The bill passed in the House of Commons largely along party lines, with all Liberal and NDP MPs voting in favour of the changes, while most Conservatives opposed. Some notable female Tory MPs, including Michelle Rempel and Lisa Raitt, backed Bélanger's bill.
Nearly a year later, the bill is now in its last legislative phase — third reading in the Senate — awaiting a final vote. As per the Senate's procedural policy, debate on the bill can be continually adjourned by critics, punting a vote on the matter to a later date.
The bill's backers, including Liberal MP Greg Fergus, hope to see the bill passed into law in time for Canada's 150th birthday celebrations on July 1.
While others, including Conservative Nova Scotia Senator Michael MacDonald, have said the "sloppy" legislation should be defeated in its present form because it's simply an attempt to sanitize a national symbol.
"If we are constantly revising everything because it was written in another generation, our national symbols will have no value. Our history means nothing in this country anymore, and it's a shame that we're doing this," he said in an interview with CBC News. "The Senate should not be reticent in defending and preserving the heritage of Canada."
Fraser, a journalist and editor appointed by former prime minister Jean Chrétien in 1998, said it is a dangerous precedent to start fiddling with lyrics written by a man long dead.
"If we are to become engrossed in the idea that we must at all times be correctly modern, we lose a part of our heritage," Fraser said in a recent speech to the Red Chamber. "It may not be a perfect heritage — I'm not suggesting it is — but it is ours. I suggest that it deserves respect and acceptance for what it is: imperfect but our own."
Fraser said if inclusion is the primary goal, it makes little sense to leave overtly Christian references untouched. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's government added the words "God keep our land glorious and free" in 1980, she noted, the same year the song officially became the country's national anthem.
"Make no mistake about it, colleagues: we're talking about the Christian god here, not just anyone's god," she said.
Since 1980, 12 private member's bills have been introduced in the House to strip the gendered reference to "sons," which some have argued is discriminatory. All attempts have failed.
- ANALYSIS | Changing O Canada: Is God next?
"It is something that will make our national anthem more inclusive," Independent Ontario Senator Frances Lankin said in defence of the bill last month. "This change might be small, but it may very well have a major impact on how the next generation views our evolving history."
The song itself has been changed many times since the English version was first penned in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, a judge and poet. Indeed, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Weir changed the line in question from "thou dost in us command" to "in all thy sons command."
'Social justice warrior seal of approval'
MacDonald is vehemently opposed to Bélanger's wording because he believes the "politically correct" changes were rammed through the House despite little or no public demand for such a modification.
He said the Liberal government used Bélanger, a man who was near death, as a "vehicle" for the changes.
"That's not the way to use Parliament. Everybody knows the tragedy of his circumstances, a very tragic thing — but, with respect, it's the government that treated it like the Children's Wish Foundation," MacDonald said.
"This is just change for the sake of change, and just catering to a very narrow group of people who want to impose their agenda on everything," he said. "Leave the anthem alone."
The Cape Breton senator also takes issue with the bill because it only changes the English-language version of the national anthem, even though the French words would have a hard time getting the "social justice warrior seal of approval."
"Why should one official version of the anthem be exempt from re-examination?" MacDonald said. "It is, without question, an ethnic French-Canadian, Catholic, nationalist battle hymn, certainly non-inclusive, yet I am not offended. It is just part of Canada's history in song."
MacDonald said he has consulted with English and linguistic professors about the wording change, and they agree that the bill's authors "botched" the language.
"The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase 'All thy sons command' is 'All of our command,'" MacDonald said. "This is not opinion. This is fact." (The full text of his speech can be read here.)