Jackson Doughart
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Let's just take out all the words to O Canada

The National Post, 08 October 2013

When the forces of political correctness attack tradition for the sake of “equality and diversity”, a natural inclination is to dig one’s heels in. Such was displayed in Rex Murphy’s indignant, but rational, plea for “and all thy sons command” to remain in the Canadian anthem on CBC’s The National last week. Contrary to the claim of Margaret Atwood, Murphy argued, “sons” here does not refer literally to sons at the exclusion of daughters, any more than it means to exclude uncles, cousins, or brothers! The anthem employs “sons” poetically to express inter-generational continuity; no one ever took it to mean that women were not a part of the anthem’s meaning.

Alas, this cannot logically be the end of nit-picking with the anthem lyrics, given the number of verses which flout contemporary “Canadian values”. To bring things up to date for 2013 and beyond, we would have to replace any references to “guarding” and “strength”, which connote militarism and archaic concepts like borders and territory and frontiers. Ditto for “patriot love”. “Free” is also problematic, for it might support the kind of freedoms we don’t approve of, like conspicuous religious freedom and freedom from government. God would be promptly nixed, for reasons requiring no explanation. “Native land” can’t stay, for what about immigrants, for whom this land is adopted? And, to make a couple of additions, there would have to be mentions of official bilingualism, environmentalism, and toleration.

Perhaps an updated lyric would look something like this:

O Canada! So tolerant and grand
True liberal love, where all people can land
With growing hearts, we see thee live
The Good North quiet with glee
From far and wide
O Canada, we keep two tongues and creeds
We keep our land lovely and treed
O Canada! We give our best to thee
O Canada! We give our best to thee

The present English words, however, are no match in disrespect for egalitarianism than those of the present French version, which includes verses like these: “Your brow is decorated with glorious flowers”, “Your arm is ready to wield the sword / As it is ready to carry the cross”, “Your history is an epic / Of the most marvelous exploits”, “Your valour is steeped in faith”.

Were it not for the fact that the French version means more to Anglophones — who are often taught to recite it by rote but seldom understand it — than it does to the Québécois, this would doubtless provide far more grist for the mill of Atwood and her co-thinkers than do the English words. Nevertheless, this pseudo-issue suggests that to a significant portion of the Canadian population, there is no tradition or institution to which the blade of modernization and progress ought not be struck. Removing all vestiges of traditional images from national symbols is one way of ensuring that people with traditionalist opinions be excluded from acceptable company. To name, after all, is to claim.

In some respect, though, this argument seems hollow at its core, perhaps because the fundamental appeal of O Canada is not its lyrical content but its melodic virtue. This is especially apparent when one hears the anthem performed orchestrally. To be comparative, it is similar in this way to La Marseillaise, the anthem of France whose words actually speak of the enemy’s flowing blood in war. Yet it is the tune, and not the words, that one recognizes.

Both O Canada and La Marseillaise are discrete from the United States’ Star Spangled Banner, which is foremost of lyrical appeal and is best performed alone by a singer. Though not an American, I do experience so-called stomach butterflies when a performer with a powerful voice sings, “And the rocket’s red glare / The bombs bursting in air / Gave proof through the night / That our flag was still there”. Nothing of comparable rhetorical force is contained in the Canadian lyrics of either language.

Perhaps a solution to both this complaint, and to the countless others which could conceivably be raised on analogous grounds, would be to remove words from the anthem altogether. There are, after all, many songs — especially classical pieces such as Für Elise and Ode to Joy — which are popularly known for their melody, not words. This is not to say that there could no longer be vocal performances; these would just be harmonic, which would have the added value of being the same in both official tongues.

Canada’s anthem could remain iconic without the lyrics. And by making the piece exclusively instrumental, we could preemptively protect it from the social-engineering nihilists, who see the anthem as nothing more than another ground upon which to advance the cause. If they could be robbed of even one such opportunity, what could possibly be more agreeable?

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com