Politics

'Canada is all of us': Ailing MP Mauril Bélanger makes case for change to O Canada

The Ottawa-area MP diagnosed with ALS last fall received a warm welcome when he appeared on the floor of the House of Commons for second reading of his bill to make the national anthem gender-neutral. But that affection didn't translate into unanimous support.

Ottawa-area MP diagnosed with ALS uses iPad to voice proposed changes to the national anthem

Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Belanger receives a standing ovation after speaking in favour of his private members' bill to make 'O Canada' gender-neutral. Belanger, who lives with ALS, returned to the House Friday for the first hour of debate on his bill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mauril Bélanger, the Ottawa-area MP diagnosed with ALS last fall, received a warm welcome when he appeared on the floor of the House of Commons Friday for second reading of his bill to make the national anthem gender-neutral.

But the standing ovation he received when he was called upon to speak didn't translate into unanimous support for his proposed change to O Canada.

Bélanger's private members' bill would change a line in the English version of the anthem from "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command."

Bélanger has lost the ability to speak since his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis — also known as Lou Gehrig's disease — and is using Speak Selection, an app on his iPad that reads out text.

"Changing only two words ... gives Canada an inclusive anthem that respects who we were and what we have become as a country," he said via the device.

Mauril Belanger used a tablet with a text-to-speech program to make his remarks in the House, having lost the use of his voice. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"As Canadians, we continually test our assumptions, and indeed our symbols, for their suitability," he said. "Our anthem can reflect our roots and our growth."

He drew a comparison to the debate over changing Canada's flag in the sixties. 

Bélanger told the Commons that the national anthem has been changed before. Its original English lyrics were gender-neutral, he said: "thou dost in us command."

"Canada is all of us, not some of us," he told MPs gathered around to hear his words.

He said the song's reference to "sons" was added in 1913, prior to World War One, when the assumption of the day was that only sons would be in battle. In fact, both sexes served, he said.

Bélanger sat in a wheelchair, in the accessible location on the Commons floor normally used by Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr. 

Minister and medical doctor Carolyn Bennett sat to his right, with an assistant helping him with his device on his left.

Bélanger said he was looking forward to a non-partisan debate. He smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign as MPs gave him a second standing ovation at the end of his remarks.

More MPs were present than is typical for debate on a private member's bill on a Friday afternoon.

Earlier attempt failed

Bélanger introduced a similar bill in the last session of Parliament, but it was defeated 144-127. This time, he said he believes Canada is ready to make the change, citing support he's received from across the country and an opinion poll in favour.

Choirs and other Canadians are already singing the new lyrics, he said. 

Some MPs in the House of Commons sang his proposed lyric in March when he served as honorary Speaker for a day. Friday was his first day back in the House since then.

In an April 13 note to his Facebook followers he revealed he had been hospitalized.

"The reason I have not been out and about lately is because of a bad reaction to new medication and interaction between medications that have landed me in hospital. I am however hopeful in saying 'good bye' to the hospital sooner than later," he wrote.

Bélanger was brought into Centre Block on a stretcher after travelling to Parliament Hill by ambulance.

Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, who lobbied the previous Conservative unsuccessfully to change the anthem, was in the Commons gallery to watch the debate. Former Liberal MP Bob Rae was also there, sitting beside Bélanger's wife Catherine.

Some Tories opposed

The bill has to pass through all stages in both the House and Senate to become law. Relatively few private members' bills pass. The process can be lengthy without unanimous support.

Belanger served as honourary Speaker in March. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

While calling Bélanger "a beacon of inspiration" and praising his intentions, the first MP to speak in the debate said that he was opposed to the change. 

"Rewriting the lyrics of our national anthem in the name of political correctness would go too far," Conservative Larry Maguire said. "No one I talk to believes this change is necessary. People do not think our national anthem is broken."

Maguire mentioned that the former government dropped its plans to change the anthem "after listening to Canadians who thought the idea was offside." Other proposals to change it have failed in the Commons, he recalled.

Bélanger's suggestion of non-partisanship lapsed when New Democrat Sheila Malcolmson countered by saying she was "ashamed" to hear Maguire's words "after ten years of the former government slashing and burning women's programs." She was met with applause. 

She then went through a list of reasons to support the bill, even breaking into song to sing the new lyric.

Not sexist?

Conservative Peter Van Loan, speaking next, said the bill will be a free vote for Conservative MPs.

His colleague Karen Vecchio said that her party supports women, but this bill's "gesture" is not about creating opportunities for women. She read out feedback she received from people in her riding that want the anthem left as-is.

"I do not believe the anthem is sexist," Conservative Kelly Block said. "And any student of history knows this."

She called the 1913 lyric change that added "sons" a "proud reference to Canada's history and the first time that Canada fought as an independent nation and won at Vimy Ridge."

O Canada was approved as the national anthem in March 1967, supplanting God Save the Queen (which is still recognized as the royal anthem of Canada.) 

The current English lyrics — which have had several changes since originally penned by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908 — were adopted in June 1980.

'He risks not being here'

An attempt by Liberal Greg Fergus to get unanimous consent for the debate to continue past its scheduled first hour failed. The next opportunity for debate on the bill may not be until next fall.

Fergus told CBC News he was "more than disappointed" that some Conservatives blocked his attempt to speed the bill's passage, calling it "unacceptable and disgusting" to slow something Liberals and New Democrats support strongly. Some Conservatives support it, he added.

Because of Bélanger's declining health, "he risks not being here. Everyone knows that," his longtime friend said, wondering why the Conservatives wouldn't want to give him the chance to see his bill voted on.

"I'm certain they're going to look back on this and realize they made the wrong choice," he said.

Bélanger was required to be in the House Friday for the first hour of debate on the bill. Having accomplished that, the bill can now go forward.

MP Mauril Belanger's private member's bill would make O Canada gender neutral 1:45

with files from Julie Van Dusen