Changing O Canada: Is God next?: Terry Milewski

A bill to make Canada's national anthem gender-neutral will face a final vote in the House of Commons next week, but some traditionalists say it's a slippery slope to the removal of the Christian God.

Christians warn that changing O Canada is a slippery slope to removing God and the Holy Cross

Members of Parliament applaud Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Bélanger, centre, as his private member's bill on changing a phrase in the Canadian anthem to make it gender-neutral is debated in the House Friday. It goes to a final Commons vote on Wednesday, when it is expected to pass — but the controversy may not end there. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Pity the poor Pagans. Don't they have rights? 

And what about the Rastafarians? To say nothing of the Satanists.

Such questions won't seem so weird once the attention turns away from Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's heroic bid to update the rusty words of the national anthem. That's because his bill leaves untouched some other words.

Those concern — can we talk about this? — an even touchier topic: the Christian God.

The Conservatives in Parliament were not keen to help the ailing Bélanger complete his project, limited as it is to the question of gender equality. Even so, with the support of a majority government, the change will pass soon and we'll all be called to warble the new words — "in all of us command" — instead of the old "all thy sons command." 

Because it's not even 2015 anymore.

The anthem and the Cross

Unmolested so far, though, in the debate about sons versus us, is the looming God problem. It lurks mainly in the French version of the anthem, about which the ungodly have muttered for years.

The English version, of course, does invoke the Almighty: "God keep our land glorious and free!"

But the French version, which preceded the English one and is not a translation, seems noticeably more militant in its invocation of a crusading Christianity.

"Car ton bras sait porter l'épée,
Il sait porter la croix!"

Literally, that's "because your arm knows how to carry a sword, it knows how to carry the cross." So we are deep into "Onward, Christian soldiers" territory. We're armed, and we're spreading the gospel of Jesus.

Perhaps, if you'd asked Adolphe-Basile Routhier, the author of the French lyrics, why he excluded other religions that don't revere any cross, he might have replied, "Because it's 1880."

And it was. But look at Canada now.

The poet and judge Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the French lyrics of O Canada in 1880. (Quebec National Archives)

Routhier's world was Roman Catholic as far as his eye could see. But, according to the 2011 census, there are almost as many non-Christians — close to 11 million — as there are Roman Catholics in Canada. Catholics are officially nearly 13 million — although a lot fewer than that show up for Mass.

So it's not just the Pagans who might complain about the holy bits in the anthem — although Pagans are not to be dismissed as a tiny band of malcontents. The census found more than 25,000 of them, including 10,000 Wiccans.

And they'd presumably be less than thrilled if you asked them to carry even the tiniest Christian cross.

The problem multiplies

But then you have to add a vast rainbow of other religions and non-religions. Among the faithful, the census turned up 900 Shinto followers, 1,050 Satanists, 1,055 Rastafarians, 3,300 Jains, 3,600 Taoists, 6,000 Zoroastrians and nearly 19,000 Bahai. No doubt, many of these folks might not mind if a generic, interfaith god keeps our land glorious and free — but are they supposed to revere the crucifix? The central icon of Christianity?

The problem multiplies much more rapidly when you begin to count the mainstream religions for whom the Cross of Jesus is irrelevant or worse. There are more than 300,000 Jews in Canada. The Hindus and the Sikhs are each approaching half a million. Muslims are well over a million.

Next, consider those who don't want any religious label at all. Add up all the atheists, the humanists and agnostics, then throw in all those who just said, 'No thanks, no religion' ... and you quickly reach nearly eight million Canadians. And what will the 2016 census show when it's out? After another five less-than-glorious years for religious faith, it's hard to believe those numbers won't grow.

These faithless millions might well begin to wonder, then, if they should remain politely mute about the godly content of the national anthem. There's plenty to pick on. The antiquated French lyrics go on:

"Et ta valeur, de foi trempée,
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits."

So, roughly: "thy valour, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and our rights." And what if we're not steeped in faith? Don't our rights get protected? What if we think religious faith is often a dangerous thing?

Defenders of the faith

But don't wait for some Christian soldiers to saddle up for the defence of the one true faith. They're doing it already.

"Members of Parliament are being hypocritical by attempting to change Canada's English national anthem," thunders Charles McVety, of the Institute for Canadian Values. We notice at once that "Canadian values" are meant to be Christian values — and McVety leaves no doubt of this when he warns that, if we change "sons" to "us," it's a slippery slope to hell.

"The next step for revisionists will be to remove 'God,' 'wield the sword,' 'carry the cross' and 'valour steeped in faith' from the anthems," McVety predicts. "Canada's national anthems are precious to the foundation of the country and should not be changed."

And if the country includes millions of unbelievers — and millions more who recoil from the image of Christians carrying swords and crosses — too bad. The party of God is suiting up.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.