Conservatives trying to 'kill the bill' that would make O Canada gender neutral, senator says

The late Liberal MP Mauril Belanger's dream of a gender-neutral national anthem by Canada Day is likely over.

Late Liberal MP's dream of a gender-neutral anthem by Canada Day likely over because of amendment

Conservative Senator Don Plett, left, is opposed to the proposed changes to O Canada, and has moved an amendment that could kill the late Liberal MP Mauril Belanger's bill. (Canadian Press)

The late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's dream of a gender-neutral national anthem by Canada Day is likely over.

Conservative Manitoba Senator Don Plett has moved an amendment to the legislation that would dump Bélanger's proposed changes — which would replace "in all thy sons command" with "all of us command" in the English version of the anthem — and revert to the original wording of the song penned by Judge Robert Stanley Weir in 1908.

Plett said he is uncomfortable tinkering with the language of a song written by a man long dead, and is now proposing a compromise. He wants to change the lyrics to read "thou dost in us command."

"If we are to allow this legislation to pass, we would be doing a great disservice to our nation. A nation's national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from," Plett said in the Senate chamber.

"As members of this chamber of sober second thought, we must reflect on the consequences of such a change and the dangerous precedent that it would create."

Plett added that Stephen Weir Simpson, the grandson of the song's writer, stands against any attempts to "trample" on the anthem.

Bill's original sponsor passed away

Independent Ontario Senator Frances Lankin, who is the sponsor of Bill C-210 in the Senate, said in an interview with CBC News that while she is generally supportive of Plett's language, in part because it is gender neutral, she will vehemently oppose attempts to amend the legislation at this stage because it would "kill the bill."

Lankin said because Bélanger died — he passed away last summer from ALS — he cannot stand to oppose the amendments in the House. MPs would have to unanimously agree to replace Bélanger as the sponsor of the bill with another member, something that is unlikely because of considerable Conservative opposition to the proposed wording. If a new sponsor cannot be found, the bill would languish on the order paper.

Lankin said she told Plett what his amendment would do to the bill, and urged him to withdraw it.

"He said to me, 'I'm not in favour of the bill anyway, Frances, so I wouldn't do that.'"

Conservative Senator Don Plett is opposed to the proposed changes to O Canada, and has moved an amendment that could 'kill the bill.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In a statement sent to CBC News, Plett said "the rule relating to changing the sponsorship of a bill was news to most of us in the Senate. However, that does not change the merit of the amendment."

"For a senator to suggest that I would purposely take advantage of the death of a former colleague is disheartening."

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly told reporters after question period Wednesday the government would not accept Plett's amendment, if passed. "We'll abide by the position of Mauril Bélanger, which was in favour of gender parity."

Quebec Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, a friend and confidant of the late MP, said further delay of the bill was "unfortunate."

"I think we achieved a broad consensus in the country and I also think it was a poignant tribute to Mr. Bélanger and his efforts, I would hope they would move along with this."

Tories will adjourn debate, punting a vote

And yet, even if the proposed amendment does not pass in the Senate, the bill faces a grim future.

Lankin said the Tories have told her they will do everything in their power to prevent a vote on the legislation in the Senate. As per parliamentary procedure, any member of the Red Chamber can adjourn debate in their name — punt a vote or delay any further discussion — on a private member's bill indefinitely. The tactic is a longstanding irritant of Independent senators as it has been used by Tories to temporarily hold up other bills.

"This is an example of a group of senators hijacking the agenda. Whether the vote is yes or no, at the end of the day, whether the bill passes or is defeated, it is not the role of the Senate to withhold democratic expression, which is the vote," Lankin said.

While the democratically elected House of Commons can use these sorts of delay tactics, Lankin said, it is "not the role of the Senate" to stand against legislation duly passed by a majority of MPs.

She said it is hypocritical for the Conservatives to demand swift passage of former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose's bill — which would mandate sexual assault training for judges — while standing against a bill that was essentially a dying man's last wish. "Why ask for one bill to be treated so differently, and on the other bill, deny a vote."

Plett is not alone in opposing the bill. Some of his fellow Tories, and Liberal and Independent senators, have said they will not support the gender neutrality.

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. "Politicians are not usually poets." 


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.