O Canada bill championed by Mauril Bélanger, MP with ALS, advances to final vote

Emotions ran high this afternoon as Mauril Bélanger, the veteran Liberal MP whose health is rapidly deteriorating from ALS, returned to the Commons to ensure his private member's bill to change the English lyrics of O Canada advanced to its final vote.

Rules required Liberal MP to be present in House to move his bill on to final stage

Liberal MPs rose to applaud after debate concluded on Mauril Bélanger's bill to change the English lyrics of O Canada. The final vote on Bill C-210 is expected to pass easily next Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Feelings ran high this afternoon as Mauril Bélanger, the veteran Liberal MP whose health is rapidly deteriorating from ALS, returned to the Commons to ensure his private member's bill to change the English lyrics of O Canada advanced to its final vote.

A motion to accept the bill at report stage, which required Bélanger to be present, carried on a voice vote.

MPs gave a standing ovation for the veteran MP, who was seated in a wheelchair near the Speaker's chair on the floor of the Commons. 

Five MPs then spoke during its final debate at third reading. Once that concluded, the Speaker announced the bill will have its final vote next Wednesday. It's expected to pass easily and proceed to the Senate.

Many MPs stood again to applaud, some visibly emotional as they bit their lips, looked up and wiped tears.

Final vote ahead on O Canada changes

7 years ago
Duration 2:03
Mauril Bélanger returned to the House of Commons to ensure his bill to change the lyrics of O Canada advanced to a final vote

Bélanger's wife, Catherine, was seated in the gallery with Senator Jim Munson, a friend of the Bélangers. They hugged and gave thumbs-up signs.

It's not known how many other senators support the change or how easily the bill may pass in the Red Chamber.

Bill C-210 changes the line "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command," making the English lyrics of the national anthem gender neutral.

The legislation has become a real focus for the MP, his friends say, as the progression of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, makes work more and more difficult. 

During his last appearance in the Commons a month ago to kick off debate on his bill, he used a wheelchair and delivered his prepared speech using a tablet software program. Bélanger did not speak Friday.

5 MPs speak in final debate

Conservative Peter Van Loan has been a vocal opponent of the accelerated pace of this bill's process, arguing there has not been enough public consultation. He used his speech Friday to give voice to the views of individual Canadians who did not want O Canada changed in any way, reading from specific messages his party received.

"Those are views that matter, whether you agree or disagree," he said. "When it comes to national symbols, when it comes to the things that make us what we are, historically, we have taken them from the people, not given them to the people.

"At the very least, if we seek to change that which the people have given us, we deserve to hear from those people and not block them from the discussion. That is what has happened in the process with this bill," he said.

Blaine Calkins echoed these sentiments, saying the emotional arguments about passing Bélanger's bill should not be a rationale for how decisions are made in the House. His constituents, he said, overwhelmingly do not support the change.

The third Tory to speak, Brad Trost, said that he didn't think the current anthem was discriminatory. He said when the lyrics were changed around the First World War from "thou dost in us command" to "in all thy sons command," it was for poetic value — the lyrics must be seen as a Victorian-era poem.

Bélanger used a tablet with a text-to-speech program to kick off debate on his proposed changes to the national anthem on May 6. His battle with ALS has become more difficult since then. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

New Democrat Jenny Kwan thanked and congratulated Bélanger for his perseverance, noting former NDP MPs like Svend Robinson and Libby Davies had tried but failed to make the anthem more inclusive.

"That's what the symbolism of this change is all about," she said.

"The original verse of the national anthem [was] gender neutral," Kwan said. "It seems like we've come full circle."

"It is 2016," Randy Boissonault, the parliamentary secretary for heritage said. "This about the future … what else could be more Canadian?"

Conservatives split

A clear majority of MPs in the House are expected to vote in favour next week. It passed 219-79 at second reading, with only Conservatives voting against.

A handful of Conservatives supported the bill, while the Bloc Québécois abstained on principle, because the bill concerned only the English lyrics.

Liberals, including Bélanger's fellow MPs from ridings in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, have gone to great lengths to help things along.

"Time is of the essence," friend and fellow Liberal Greg Fergus told CBC News. 

Belanger's O Canada bill passes major hurdle

7 years ago
Duration 1:56
Mauril Belanger's Bill will be voted on at Third Reading next Wednesday where a majority is expected to pass it and send it to the Senate

Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary for the House leader, paid tribute Friday to the support of government whip Andrew Leslie, who represents a neighbouring riding.

Attempts seeking unanimous consent to fast-track the bill, or allow it to stand in another MP's name so Bélanger would not be required to be present if his illness did not allow, were denied by Conservatives.

"Why deny him the opportunity to see the vote take place?" said NDP MP David Christopherson, another friend of Bélanger's. "The Conservatives have a lot to answer for here, and I'm extremely disappointed in my Conservative colleagues."

"It's not about politics now. It's about humanity. It's about decency. It's about respect. So yeah, this one's a little more emotional and personal than usual," he said.

Leslie tries to speed up debate of Belanger's O Canada Bill

7 years ago
Duration 0:51
A unidentified Conservative MP stops Chief Government Whip Andrew Leslie from speeding up the passage of Mauril Belanger's Bill

Two MPs, one Liberal and one Bloc member, agreed to give up time scheduled for their own private member's business so Bélanger's bill could advance through the required stages before summer recess.

The heritage committee dealt with its review of the bill in only one sitting last week, much to the frustration of Conservatives like Van Loan.

Tory MP Erin O'Toole was seen speaking to Bélanger before Friday's debate. He told reporters that because of the MP's "tragic situation" his party should not circumvent the proceedings. 

"He has been a remarkable parliamentarian and paying respect to him is letting the debate run its course," O'Toole said.