Anthem change a 'long, rocky road' for founder of Famous Five Foundation

It took almost two decades to get the lyrics to 'O Canada' changed to include all Canadians, but for Frances Wright, it's a sweet victory.

Francis Wright battled for two decades to make 'O Canada' gender neutral

Canada's national anthem, O Canada, has been updated to be gender neutral. The lyrics 'in all thy sons command' has been changed to 'in all of us command.' (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

In 2001, Frances Wright was pretty sure the battle to change the lyrics of O Canada to gender neutral was pretty much a lock.

Now, 17 years later, she's older and wiser to all the ways in which Canadian parliamentarians can push an idea that seemed like a slam dunk into the ditch.

That's because at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2018, the Senate signed off on legislation that changed the lyrics from "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command" as part of a plan to eliminate gendered language from O Canada.

For Wright, the founder of the Famous Five Foundation, the move came as a sweet victory.

"When we started in 2001, I thought probably within four or five years, it would get adopted," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's disappointing that it's taken this long, but it is a change that's finally happened," she said, "and will stay, I know, for many, many years, because changing our anthem is a very difficult, long, rocky road."

Lyrics tweaked to recruit soldiers

The lyric that was changed was actually not part of the original — it was added by the song's author, Robert Stanley Weir,  to make O Canada more of a military recruitment song during the First World War, when he tweaked "thou dost in us command," changing it to "in all thy sons command."

Since 1980, when O Canada formally became Canada's national anthem, there have been 12 bills introduced in the House of Commons to replace the gendered language.

The one that finally passed originally came to a vote on June 15, 2016, which was passed by the House of Commons. 

Blocked by a group of 'pale, male and stale' senators

In the Senate, the proposed change received unanimous approval by the Senate social affairs committee. It looked promising until a block of Conservative senators whom Wright described as "pale, male and stale" refused to allow the bill to be voted on.

"They didn't want any changes, and they successfully blocked the voting on this bill, for nearly 18 months," Wright said.

The cause was eventually picked up by Toronto Senator Frances Lankin, who sponsored the bill that was ultimately approved Thursday.

"I'm very, very happy," Lankin told CBC News. "There's been 30 years plus of activity trying to make our national anthem, this important thing about our country, inclusive of all of us," she said.

"This may be small, it's about two words, but it's huge.... We can now sing it with pride knowing the law will support us in terms of the language. I'm proud to be part of the group that made this happen."

Emblematic of Canadian values

For Wright, an immigrant who moved as a young girl with her family from South Africa to Canada, the change is emblematic of Canadian values.

"It takes time for these changes to happen, but thank goodness this one has finally happened," she said, "because I know it has upset a number of Canadians, that their mothers, their wives, their daughters, their nieces and themselves have not been formally included in the anthem."

Elizabeth Snaddon and John Paul Tasker, CBC News