O Canada: An Anthem for All?

David Wells, Conservative senator for Newfoundland and Labrador, has every right to his opinion that no change should be made to our national anthem.

Senator David Wells, Newfoundland and Labrador https://sencanada.ca/en/senators/wells-david-m/

Senator David Wells, Newfoundland and Labrador

Wells is one of 20 senators who have tied up Bill C-210 — which would change the lyrics from “in all thy sons command” to the gender-neutral “in all of us command” and which passed the House of Commons by a vote of 225 to 74 on 15 June 2016 — crushing any hope that the new lyrics would be law in time for the 150th celebration of Confederation on July 1st.

But get this: Senator Wells told host Rosemary Barton of CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that he believes our anthem is gender-neutral:

“When those words were penned,” he said, “it was accurate for the time.”

Hmmm, so it was “accurate” to refer to women as “sons” when those words were first penned? It makes one wonder if Senator Wells has daughters and if so, does he refer to them as “sons” in keeping with what he believes is the accurate 1913 designation?



Robert Harris, musicologist and broadcaster, in his historical review of our anthem for the CBC’s The Sunday Edition, explained that the first English version of O Canada didn’t actually contain the phrase, “in all thy sons command” but rather, “thou dost in us command.”

‘Tradition’ has it this was changed to “in all thy sons command” to honor Canadian soldiers fighting in WWI, but the words were actually revised in 1913 before war broke out.

‘Tradition’ is very important to Senator Wells. Here he is during Senate debate on the bill in December 2016:

In this new era of new political correctness, some have decided that they would change our traditions, like our national anthem, because they want to retell our story. They want to rewrite our history as a country and as a people. For the sake of what they believe, they are willing to take away a piece of our past, a piece of our traditions, but they are not the majority of Canadians…

Changing the words to ‘‘in all of us command’’ is a token of appeasement that is a slippery slope which can inspire other demands for change. We are essentially tossing away an important piece of our history and tradition, all in the name of political correctness.

In defending his position, he referred to the War Paintings in the Senate Chamber and the fact that the artist painted “what he saw”:

I would point out that there are no female soldiers in this painting and that the only woman in view is serving at the canteen. Would a politically correct purist request this painting be taken down and airbrushed to include female soldiers and perhaps some First Nations soldiers as well? Because they would want us to show their version of history, even if it meant altering an artist’s portrayal of what they saw exactly in London in those awful war days. Our anthem is such a portrayal.

In fact, according to the Canadian War Museum’s Special Exhibition, World War Women, more than 50,000 women served with the Canadian Armed Forces during the two World Wars, including 3,000 nurses — 2,504 of whom went overseas with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War.

Moreover, artist Molly Lamb Bobak joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and was sent to London after V-E Day, remaining in the Corps until 1946. One of her many paintings, Gas Drill, depicting women trying on gas masks, can be viewed at the Canadian War Museum.

Gas Drill by Molly Lamb Bobak. Courtesy Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum. (Click image to enlarge)

Gas Drill by Molly Lamb Bobak. Courtesy Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum. (Click image to enlarge)

Take Wells’ thinking to its logical conclusion, and you have to ask: should we have preserved our ‘tradition’ of denying women the vote? The right to serve in the RCMP and the Armed Forces? The right to run for office?

It puts me in mind of Fiddler On The Roof —  “Tradition!


Chant National

Calixa Lavallée (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-70448).

Calixa Lavallée (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-70448).

Harris dispels the notion of the anthem being sacrosanct by following the long and winding road of changes made over the years.

The music Calixa Lavallée wrote in 1880 was commissioned by The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and, according to Harris, Lavallée was accused of plagiarizing the first few notes of O Canada from Act II of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (“March of the Priests”) although this was later refuted by Lavallée’s biographer, Eugène Lapierre.

First played at an outdoor skating rink in Quebec City on 24 June 1880 (St. Jean Baptiste Day), the music has remained untouched throughout the years. Having heard Lavallée’s  “grand air” or “marche héroïque,” Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the French lyrics as a hymn — albeit a very militarized hymn, with lyrics like, “Your arm knows how to wield a sword” as well as how to “carry a cross.”

The anthem, originally called “Chant National,” was first sung at St.-Jean Church on 27 June 1880 and its popularity “grew rapidly in Quebec,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, although it was not heard in English Canada until 1901, when it “was sung by schoolchildren in Toronto” during a visit by the future King George V. The French lyrics had been translated by Thomas B. Richardson but the translation “was not well received” and eventually, in 1908, to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, Robert Stanley Weir wrote an original English anthem. Here’s the Weir version – Verse 1:

O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love thou dost in us command.

We see thee rising fair, dear land,

The True North, strong and free;

And stand on guard, O Canada,

We stand on guard for thee.

Refrain: O Canada! O Canada!

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

Changes were made to Weir’s composition in 1913, 1914 and 1916 (including “in all thy sons command”). Here’s the version recommended by a joint House of Commons and Senate committee in 1967:

O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free.

From far and wide, O Canada

We stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free.

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

Of course, with the popularity of God Save The Queen and The Maple Leaf Forever, O Canada was not accepted as our national anthem until 1 July 1980. Following the failed Quebec referendum on sovereignty and the singing of Gilles Vigneault’s Gens du Pays (the “national anthem of Quebec”) after the vote, the Canadian government pushed through Ontario MP Ron Stewart’s private member’s bill and The National Anthem Act was passed unanimously by the House and the Senate, receiving Royal assent the same day, 27 June 1980.

Given the history of our anthem, one could argue that changing it has also been a ‘tradition.’ And changing it to include not only women, but Indigenous peoples, immigrants, refugees and our LGBTQ community, is certainly in keeping with our Canadian ‘heritage.’


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!