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National Anthem Act

 I rise today to add my voice to the debate around Bill C-210, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act.

"In all thy sons command" — who would have thought that this phrase could provoke as much comment and debate as it has?

Let's consider the views shared in debate in this chamber thus far over the endeavour to bring gender equality to our national anthem.

In her speech as sponsor of this bill, Senator Nancy Ruth spoke passionately about respecting cultural heritage and its ongoing evolution.

Senator Wells has warned us about the potential of political correctness "blanching" the anthem most of us have known since childhood.

Senator Munson has asserted his view that this bill is about respecting the rights and roles of women in society.

Senator Omidvar cautioned us that inclusion is about lending visibility to our diversity, and that language is a significant contributor to this.

Senator McCoy urged us, as a "council of elders," not to be too stuck in our old ways.

And in a most stirring and memorable speech, Senator Cools so eloquently reminded us that a national anthem is a torch that was passed and one that we must continue to pass. In fact, she asserted that our national anthem is not ours to change nor repossess at whim.

I offer my gratitude to her for reminding us that our anthem is, as she described it, a work of "sacred art." I will speak further to this idea of the anthem as art in a few moments.

Colleagues, it's clear from the debate thus far that the notion of changing our national anthem, even slightly, invokes an uncommon passion in our study of this bill. And therein lies the challenge, honourable colleagues. In my view, the consideration of such changes in this regard can in fact amount to us tinkering with history.

While rooted in the most altruistic of intentions, it should be acknowledged that our national anthem is an instrument of our history and a snapshot of a foregone time in our society. We live in a world practically bereft of reverence for our history. So many times these days historical significance is swept away without regard for the rich heritage of our past.

Take for example the fact that Vimy Park in Montreal was renamed after Jacques Parizeau, former premier and leader of the Parti Québécois. This act of historical revisionism undid the tribute to the 3,500 Canadian soldiers who valiantly served and gave their lives for their country, not to mention the 7,000 soldiers who were wounded in that conflict. What about honouring the memory of the volunteer infantry from all across Canada who fought to win back the strongest fortress on the Western Front?

Where goes the legacy commemorating one of the defining moments of our national life? It is any wonder that more than 80 per cent of students studying Canadian history before graduating fail the Dominion Institute's basic history quiz? Or that 78 per cent of Canadians feel that learning more about Canada's history would be a significant factor in strengthening their attachment to Canada?

Churchill once said:

Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.

If history is indeed the stuff full of statecraft, we should not and must not repaint the pictures of the past to obscure their meaning by images of the present.

We know and embrace the fact that Canada is a socially progressive and inclusive society. But as Alberta writer Tom Henihan cautioned in a column earlier this year, Canada:

. . . needs enduring emblems and traditions from which its identity emanates. Otherwise, Canada may appear . . . as a nation with no cultural terra firm, constantly redefining itself to suit the vagaries of every social change.

Honourable senators, the sponsor of this bill, Senator Nancy Ruth, has said herself that the English version of O Canada is not tied to any one part of our history, that it is the product of a young nation forging its own path through time.

It is that very notion that should preclude us from making this change.

In the midst of this debate, it's important to recognize that Robert Stanley Weir's lyrics of 1908 are not misogynistic poetry; they are indicative of a society on the brink of transition.

No evidence suggests any degree of purposeful exclusion of any element of early 20th century Canadian landscape.

Gender equality is important. Tributes to its reflection in Canadian society are too, but commemoration of our history is just as worthy of note.

There must be other appropriate ways of affirming that without revising history.

It's for this reason and for those I have just cited that I recommend that our national anthem not be changed and left instead to stand as an historic reminder of our country's important past, and to the indomitable spirit of Canadians to grow and mature as a diverse and vibrant nation.

To put this matter in context, I'll share the thoughts of another writer, Emma Teitel, who specializes in women's rights and LGBT issues. In her story published in 2013 by Maclean's, she writes:

But the underlying foundation of our nation is not a song kids mumble after the morning bell and before hockey games. The foundation of our nation—the thing that makes us us—is our Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both of which protect the rights of women and minorities.

In cautioning those who take issue with the current lyrics, she stated:

The song's lyrics, written long ago, don't reflect the modern society in which they are sung today, which means they don't sting the way they once would. Not only do they not harm; they don't even offend.

Ms. Teitel suggests that it's logical to:

. . . honour that time and sing those lyrics while fully embracing the gender equality that has taken root in our country since. Were our rights as women on the line, or our country's state secularism (some are advocating that the government remove the word "God" as well), modernizing the anthem would be prudent. But they're not.

When your culture rejects macho heroism and institutionalized religion, channelling those things in song and ritual is no longer dangerous or offensive. It's quaint.

It's not only quaint — it's history.

While I'm sure there remain some of you who may take offence in this regard, or who may not consider the matter quaint, the writer's point is clear and a good one: The Charter does affirm and protect these rights.

Honourable colleagues, let's not forget that, as I mentioned in respect of Senator Cools' remarks, in the final analysis, music — yes, even our national anthem, written over a century ago — is art.

Sohrab Ahmari is a journal editorial writer in London, whose opinion editorial was published a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal under the heading "Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?" In it, he offered a stark critique around the notion of beauty in art and its seeming disappearance. We'd be wise to think about his position.

He wrote:

In today's art scene, the word "beauty" isn't even part of the lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigor and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent—all of these ideals, once thought timeless, have been thrust aside to make room for the art world's one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.

Now, identity has always been at the heart of culture. Who are we? What is our nature? How are we—as individuals and as groups—distinct from each other, from the animals, from the gods or God?

But this helps me come to the conclusion that we should not tamper with art over gender identity, and that means tinkering with our anthem.

Free societies need art to aspire to timeless ideals like truth and beauty, and that grapples with the transcendent things about what it means to be human. Such art allows us to relate to each across identitarian differences and share a cultural commonwealth. When all culture is reduced to group identity and grievance, tyranny is around the corner.

In closing, honourable colleagues, it is 2016. Our laws, our society and its communities have, by dint of hard work, persistence, diligence and good old-fashioned Canadian compromise become open, diverse and inclusive.

Just a few short days ago, after observing Remembrance Day, we should remind ourselves that such openness, diversity and inclusivity in our society came at a cost.

In her speech, Senator Cools compelled us:

. . . to work for the day when the last man, the last person falls in battle. This is what Judge Weir's O Canada is about, the eternal quest for accord in human affairs, for peace and justice in our land. . .

I heartily agree. Let's not tamper with iconic pieces of our historic past as a means of political comment on where we wish to be in the future.

Let's learn from our history. Let's grow from our past, and let's make greater strides together as men and women, moving forward by celebrating just how far we've come without seeking to revisit and rewrite the very history that helped us get where we are today. Thank you.