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‘O Canada’ Will Become Gender Neutral With New Lyrics

January 31, 2018

Although “O Canada” is not heard much in Quebec, outside of the Bell Centre where the Montreal Canadiens play, it was created in 1880 by French-speaking Quebecers. It was created as an alternative to “God Save the Queen,” which then had official status as the country’s royal anthem, a designation it retains.

Twenty years later, the music by Calixa Lavallée was adopted by some English-speaking Canadians, but translations of the lyrics, a poem by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, didn’t catch on. A torrent of English variations followed, partly spurred on by competitions. The winner, ultimately, was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer in Montreal.

The first version was gender neutral with the second line: “True patriot love thou dost in us command.”

‘O Canada’ Will Become Gender Neutral With New Lyrics
‘O Canada’ Will Become Gender Neutral With New Lyrics

Why or when that lyric was changed to “in all thy sons command” is unclear. But complaints about the exclusion of women surfaced as early as the 1950s when “O Canada” was very much an also-ran as the nation’s unofficial anthem to “The Maple Leaf Forever,” a patriotic song in which Canada is created and shaped by British military victories, including the conquest of New France.

Unsurprisingly, that song was unpopular in French-speaking Quebec and among indigenous people and immigrants.

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Since 1980, several different groups, among them one that included the author Margaret Atwood, tried to prod Parliament into making the change. A dozen bills introduced over several years all failed to pass.

Ms. Lankin, the Senator, said that although the change has had widespread support from women, she’s also received telephone calls from “very angry people.”

“They referred to the words as being almost sacred,” she said. “When I’ve walked them through the history, they’re shocked.”

The bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday was a dying man’s wish. It was introduced by Mauril Bélanger, a Liberal member of Parliament, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis shortly after his party, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, took power in 2015.

With the government’s support it passed in the House of Commons about two months before Mr. Bélanger died in 2016.

But Conservatives opposed to the change stymied its progress through Senate, whose members are appointed rather than elected. An unusual move to limit debate forced the vote on Wednesday.

It is still unclear exactly when the change will take effect. The governor general has to give it “royal assent” — a formality — and then a date proclaiming its coming into force has to be set.

So any Canadian Olympic medal winners who do sing the new version at the upcoming Winter Olympics may be doing so unofficially.

Follow Ian Austen on Twitter: @ianrausten

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