The Harper government has suggested this week that it might take a look at revising the lyrics of “O Canada” in order to make them more gender neutral. Specifically, they are looking at replacing Robert Stanley Weir’s line “in all thy sons command” (to my recollection, this line is often rendered as “in all our sons command”), with the line from Adolphe-Basile Routhier’s original poem “thou dost in us command.” I think that in an ongoing effort to recognise the centrality of music in social and cultural life, this deserves comment.
This, of course, is a pretty valuable discussion to have, and one with at least a twenty year-old history. Indeed, why should patriotism only be associated with sons and not daughters? While we’re at it though, we ought to take it further and ask important questions about the music that is supposed to represent the people of this country. Let’s look at the French version, and begin the process of eliminating its gender specificity (“nos aieux” = “our forefathers”). Moreover, let’s ask ourselves whether a country whose indigenous population was largely polytheistic, and whose contemporary population is a grand mixture of people of many religious and non-religious backgrounds, needs an anthem that so prominently features the Christian deity, in both languages—they are, after all “His” sons. One step further. Let’s acknowledge the troubled history of national anthems themselves as emerging out of a violent, colonial, oppressive nationalism, a violence that is reflected in “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée” (“As in thy arm ready to wield the sword”). And finally, we might just take this opportunity to re-examine the term “patriot” itself, and acknowledge its Latin and Greek roots: pater = father.  I’d say that this is one way to harness the debate and hold the Harperites to the letter on this move. Then we can have a proper discussion about the notion of national political and cultural representation.
In a move sure to cause a vivid debate, I certainly don’t take this as a signal that the Harper government has all of sudden put gender issues on the table as part of its message. No. This is the same party and leader who have objected to same sex marriage and benefits for same-sex couples, who advocated disallowing women to appeal for pay equity, oppose national childcare, cut funding to Status of Women Canada, who wage a vicious war on the poor that disproportionately affects women, and who generally espouse conservative “family values”…the list goes on. Changing a word is unlikely to have material effects on the lives of Canadian women or anyone else.
But what is perhaps most subtly disturbing about this is that it comes at the very same time as a federal budget. As politicos are fond of calling it, this is an example of “deflective” or “deflection” politics. DeBord called it spectacle. The idea is to seed a story so perfectly well-suited for “person on the street,” populist “analysis” that members of the mainstream media simply cannot help themselves; they simply HAVE to cover it, it’s news. It’s also much easier to get a reporter out on the street with a microphone to ask people if they think nouns or pronouns  ought to be replaced in the national anthem than it is to ask people what they think about, say, a $3.25 a week increase in Child Tax Benefits ($3.25!?), continued promotion of “corporate welfare,” increased efforts in securitisation (which is, interestingly, also included in a chapter about “Supporting Families and Communities”)…and this list goes on. Especially after the Olympics, this is the perfect topic to deflect attention away from the budget; it is downright entertaining to see people speak passionately about “owning the podium” and how much it meant to “us” to have the national anthem played more times than any other host country had theirs played. It’s significantly less entertaining to have dry economists point out the failings (or successes) of a budget.
By nature a deflective tactic is also presumed to be less important than the issue from which it is supposed to divert attention; one wouldn’t deflect with something more crucial, that would draw unwanted attention. There is rarely any intention to move forward on the actual substance of the deflection. In this case, I think it would be fair to say that there will be a 50/50 split amongst those people polled who care about the issue, it will gain no real political traction, and it will thus have served its purpose as an entertaining piece of theatre.
But I don’t mean to suggest that the issue is not actually important, in fact, I argue the opposite. Using gender as a deflection is further evidence of this government’s contempt for progressive social issues. They have cravenly manipulated the intense feeling of pride held by many who live in this country over the great successes of hard-working, talented athletes; they have instrumentalised the supposed sanctity of the national anthem; and they have trivialised gender issues as a means to deflect attention from a budget that appears at first to be business as usual, but which I am sure, upon further inspection, will yield further damages for people, and further gains for corporate Canada. For me, this shows ultimate disrespect for each of these important issues. In addition to playing classic divisive politics (they are ignoring people affected by the many other problematic issues in the anthem’s lyrics), it seems to me a typically chauvinistic approach to suggest that issues affecting women could be addressed by paying attention to “aesthetics” rather than to material concerns.
So, what do people think about this?
Thanks to Valérie Savard for bringing up this point.
 Interestingly, this is probably one of the only times we’ll see debate over grammar occupy a front and centre position in the mainstream media!