The women who fought to make Canada’s national anthem gender-neutral

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After decades of hailing its sons but not its daughters, Canada’s national anthem has been amended. It took years of pressure from a group of determined women, writes Alex Marshall.

It was in 1997 that Frances Wright first noticed something was missing from O Canada.

She had started a campaign to build monuments to the Famous Five – women who fought for equality in Canada in the 1920s – and during one of their first events, everyone sang the anthem, belting out its opening lines:

O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

Wright, then in her 50s, hadn’t previously given much thought to the song. She was born in South Africa, her parents moving to Canada when she was six, so she’d always been aware of being an immigrant, and was filled with a desire to praise her adopted country.

But as soon as they finished, a friend pulled her aside. “Why are you singing that sexist anthem, Frances?” she asked, pointing out it only talks about sons. “Where are the women?”

Over the next few years, Wright was one of an growing number of Canadians having that conversation. At many of her events, Girl Guides were present when the anthem was sung. Wright was surprised how often their fathers complained to her afterwards about its lyrics.

“They’d come and say to me things like, ‘I have a son and a daughter, but in the anthem, I only get to sing about my son.'”

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Frances Wright

She decided she had to do something about it. Not try and change whole anthem, obviously. Not even try to change a verse. Just change that one four-letter word.

At the end of January 2018, Canada’s Senate finally passed a bill making O Canada gender-neutral and it received Royal Assent on Wednesday. The words “in all thy sons command” have now been replaced with “in all of us command”.

The vote was the culmination of the work of numerous women who had been calling for the change for almost 40 years. It’s a campaign that shows both the stubbornness you need in politics, and the difficulty that goes with trying to change a national symbol.

Media captionNew gender-neutral Canadian national anthem

The song was originally written in 1880, but it didn’t become Canada’s official anthem until a century later. In the wake of Quebec’s first independence referendum, in which 40% voted to leave Canada, the federal government dumped God Save the Queen as the country’s anthem and replaced it with O Canada – both a workmanlike English version (“O Canada, we stand on guard for thee”) and a more poetic French one (“O Canada… Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers”).

It was a popular, catchy song and it seemed a choice few could argue with – but even back then, the English words annoyed many. The line about “sons” wasn’t the only one causing problems. Another about “our home and native land” annoyed many indigenous people who pointed out that only they could actually claim Canada as their native land.

“Many would like to see the words… replaced to better reflect the reality of Canada,” Francis Fox, the minister in charge of the anthem’s adoption, told Canada’s House of Commons at the time. “I believe all members are sympathetic to these concerns.”

The government was willing to see the words changed, he added – but this never happened.

A campaign to change the anthem began gathering impetus after Vivienne Poy, a historian and former fashion designer, was appointed to the Senate in 1998. She began receiving letters urging her that changing the anthem was “the right thing to do”.

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Vivienne Poy (left) with Nancy Ruth, a fellow ex-Senator campaigned for change

“During my days in the Senate, more than 50% of the population was women. It was a simple matter of equality,” she says. The letters didn’t just come from women – some of the most powerful were from male war veterans (“My motivation [is] not based on prissy political correctness, but rather to see that women are not excluded,” one wrote).

Poy spent months researching O Canada, learning that its original English lyrics didn’t mention sons (they said “thou dost in us command” until World War One) and that other countries had already made similar changes (when Australia adopted its anthem in the 1980s, it changed the line “Australia’s sons, let us rejoice” to “Australians all, let us rejoice”). She identified experts who could testify in favour of reform and collected petitions from around the country.

One of those who gathered signatures for amending the lyrics was Wright. She carried her petition around with her, asking anyone she met to sign. “This was before social media,” Wright says. It didn’t go well. She only collected 400-500 signatures, and “each one was very difficult to get”.

“People were furious with us,” she says. “They’d say things like, ‘Why are you trying to change it? It works fine,’ or ‘I don’t mind singing sons – most of the military are men.'”

Wright went on radio call-in shows to explain why change was needed, largely getting shouted at for her trouble, and whenever she heard the anthem, she’d shout out, “Sing ‘all of us!'” – sometimes to bemused looks.

She was, however, not surprised by the poor response. “We were changing a national anthem, a song that – what? – 36 million people sing on a regular basis and is heard around the world. You can’t just do that on a whim. We realised it’d take some time.”

Poy was encountering opposition, too. When she put forward a private member’s bill to change the anthem, she was told that if she was going to change it for women, she should also change it “to take in other concerns beyond gender [like] those of fishermen, bankers and software engineers”.

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In December 2003, it looked like she had secured a vote on one bill, but a male Senator ran the clock down – asking to speak on the issue, but refusing to do so – until parliament prorogued and the Bill died. “He destroyed it for his ego,” Poy says.

Poy didn’t want the campaign to end, so passed it on to another senator, Nancy Ruth, who was aligned with the Conservative government, and so felt she had a better chance of success.

Nancy Ruth – then 63 years old – is a somewhat controversial figure in Canadian politics. The country’s first openly-lesbian Senator, she is a renowned feminist, and equally renowned for speaking her mind, often throwing in a few profanities when she does.

She is the daughter of Harry Jackman, a successful entrepreneur and politician, but she rebelled from him as a teenager (she hasn’t used his surname for almost 20 years, and in the Senate was always referred to simply by her given names). She spent part of her early life digging ditches in Indonesia and working as a goldsmith in Amsterdam.

Her father was partly responsible for her becoming a feminist. “I had three older brothers and I saw a lot of favouritism on the part of my father for them,” she says. “And I didn’t like his attitude…. Well, back then I assumed his attitude and abuse towards my mother were normal.

“One time, I saw him hit my mother and she fell down the stairs. I think I was about 16 when that happened. He didn’t push her – he struck her.

“I think I decided then I wasn’t going to let any other woman suffer that kind of abuse.”

That moment didn’t cause a complete “Paul on the Damascus Road” conversion to feminism, she says. It took a few more years of learning, especially attending a Christian student conference in Finland in 1968. “There was a group of women there who started to meet around feminism and it blew my mind away,” she says. “I relooked at history and thought, ‘Oh boy, have I been sold a bill of goods.'”

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As a senator, Nancy Ruth realised she might not be able to end abuse or women’s poverty, but the anthem meant there was at least one feminist cause she could use her appointment to achieve.

“I wanted women to be included in the song of their country,” she adds. “I wanted to be included in the song of my country at least once before I died.

“It didn’t seem a big thing.”

Over the next decade, it became clear those two words were actually a big thing indeed. Nancy Ruth made several attempts to change the anthem – at one point convincing the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to include a potential change in the Throne Speech, which sets out the government’s agenda. She’d reminded him that female soldiers “were coming home in body bags from Afghanistan”, she says.

But that success didn’t even last 48 hours. Harper’s office was bombarded by about 35,000 emails complaining about the move, Nancy Ruth says, and he dropped the plan. “I don’t think he was anti-female at all, it just wasn’t in his political best interest to proceed,” she says.

Nancy Ruth later helped set up an organisation to campaign for the change, which undertook opinion polls, gave out badges with the new words on and attracted endorsements from female soldiers, Olympians and celebrities. But all without success.

She was still trying to make the change happen just weeks before she retired in December 2016, sitting in a Senate committee room listening to people say why it shouldn’t happen – arguments she’d heard many times before.

Occasionally these arguments descended into farce – like when one Senator said people shouldn’t mess with tradition, but was found to have campaigned for Canada to drop the beaver as its national animal because it was “a dentally defective rat” that destroys tree plantations.

Another objector pointed out that the phrase “all of us” appeared in grunge singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Did Canada really want to associate its national anthem with that?

How did she respond to such arguments? “In my head or in public?” she says, with a laugh.

So why did the change actually happen? It was partly thanks to a man – or rather, two men. In 2015, the Liberal Party of self-declared feminist Justin Trudeau won a landslide general election victory. The following year, Mauril Bélanger, one of Trudeau’s MPs, put forward a bill calling for the anthem to change (it was actually his second attempt at doing this, and the 13th in total). He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and had to use an iPad app to make his speech introducing the Bill.

“By the way… it is 2016,” Belanger’s speech concluded.

Media captionMP Mauril Belanger introducing a bill for the Canadian anthem to change

The Bill passed the House of Commons in June of that year – Bélanger died two months later.

It just, then, needed to get through Canada’s Senate. When Nancy Ruth retired, she asked Senator Frances Lankin to take over – another strong advocate of women’s rights, known for not giving up on issues. “I knew it would be a huge challenge,” Lankin says. But she was a strong believer in the change. “I don’t think I’ve sung ‘all our sons’ for at least 25, 30 years,” she laughs. “At one point we used to sing ‘in all our folk’, which is even worse than ‘all of us command’ in terms of poetry.”

Lankin tried for over a year to get Conservative senators to agree a vote on the Bill. But eventually she became so fed up with their attempts to prevent that she used a rare procedure to force one.

“I grew up at a time when I looked at professions and I saw policemen and firemen and mailmen, and today my four-year-old great-granddaughter sees police officers and fire fighters and letter carriers,” she says. “The words are very different, and they open up a sense of possibility for young girls that wasn’t there in the early days of my life.

“I want to live in a world where the opportunities are equal from day one. Will this Bill make that happen? No. But will my great-granddaughter ever have to ask me, ‘Why is it only sons? Why don’t we talk about daughters?’ Not any more.”

Some refuseniks have declared they won’t sing the new anthem. Several athletes taking part in the winter Olympics, for instance, insist they won’t be able to remember the change. Lankin says she’s fine with that. “People will make their choice. I didn’t push it in other people’s faces when I sang alternative words. If it takes another 10 years to get people in the majority singing the new words, that’s ok.”

But Lankin, Nancy Ruth and Poy have all been deluged with messages of thanks in recent days suggesting it won’t take a decade for those words to sink in. The author Margaret Atwood was one of those who wrote to Nancy Ruth: “A grateful nation thanks you, except for the guy who wants me to crawl back under the rock from which I came,” she wrote. “What’s he got against rocks? Without them we’d all be in the magma.”

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