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Speech at 3rd Reading of Bill C-210 (Amendment to the National Anthem Act)


National Anthem Act

Bill to Amend—Third Reading—Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Lankin, P.C., seconded by the Honourable Senator Petitclerc, for the third reading of Bill C-210, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender).

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in opposition to Bill C-210, An Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender).

As our nation prepares to celebrate its rich, 150-year anniversary in just a few weeks, it is critical that we continue to remember the values and traditions that fostered the existence of our great nation. It is only through these shared ideals of altruism, patriotism and determination that we have formed the Canadian identity of today.

Furthermore, I can think of no better representation of these shared ideals than our nation's national anthem, "O Canada."

Originally penned by Judge Robert Stanley Weir prior to the beginning of World War I, "O Canada" was composed to stand as a symbol of national pride that would outlast Weir and the Great War. Although it did not become our nation's official anthem until 1980, this song — this poem — has remained iconic even through the passage of time.

If we are to allow this legislation to pass, it is, in my opinion, that we would be doing a great disservice to our nation. A nation's national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from.

This legislation seeks to amend a particular line of the anthem in the interest of gender inclusion, but as members of this chamber of sober second thought, we must reflect on the consequences of such a change and the dangerous precedent that it would create.

Senator Nancy Ruth, when she spoke on this bill, made it clear that if we were to pass this legislation, we would, in effect, be reverting to the original text of the anthem. To examine this claim, I took the time to look into the history of our nation's anthem and find out how it became what we know today.

In 1908, Judge Weir released his first draft of the anthem, in which the line in question read as follows:

True patriot love thou dost in us command.

As previously stated, this was a draft and, similar to many other poets, Weir spent the following years revising the text.

We took the liberty of contacting Mr. Stephen William Weir Simpson, the grandson of Judge Weir, to inquire as to why Judge Weir continued to revise his text and not leave the aforementioned line intact. Mr. Simpson informed us that Judge Weir's reason for the later revisions was solely to improve the poetic qualities of the text. After the most notable revision, in 1913, the line then read:

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

Mr. Simpson made it clear to me that the reason for this revision had nothing at all to do with the Great War, as many of my colleagues have erroneously suggested, but, in fact, the line was said to be representative of all Canadians and the role that they played in keeping our country strong. Since then, this line has remained unchanged.

It is important to note that Weir, the author of the text, was the individual who made the change, not Parliament. This begs the question of why we, as parliamentarians, believe we have the right to alter a piece of literary work without the consent of its author.

As Mr. Simpson pointed out, this is not the first time that Parliament has altered, or attempted to alter, his grandfather's text. In 1980, without the consultation of the Weir family, and certainly without the consultation of Judge Weir, the government thought it necessary to revise the refrain of the song to remove what parliamentarians of the time referred to as "repetitiveness." The refrain of the song used to read:

O Canada, glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

To clarify, Mr. Simpson stated that he is opposed to any revision of his grandfather's work. However, he said that if Parliament were to make any revisions to the text, he would only be comfortable with reverting the anthem to this original wording.

In doing this, the anthem would effectively be revised by the author, the individual whom I believe is the only rightful editor of this work.

As some of my colleagues may recall, this is not the first time that a bill of this nature has been debated in this place. In 2002, Bill S-39 sought to make a similar revision to this line of the anthem. At the time, Mr. Simpson wrote a letter to Senator Anne Cools, succinctly expressing his thoughts on the matter. Senator Cools has been kind enough to share this letter with me and allow me to present it to all of you, as I believe it expressly states the reasoning of the Weir family's objections, and it begins:

Dear Senator Cools: I am delighted you're on board opposing the proposed move to alter the words of O Canada; in the family's estimates, Parliament has done enough damage already.

This expressly points to the government's revisions of 1980, which I will once again stipulate that the Weir family was never consulted on. The government of the time, for whatever reason, did not think the thoughts and the wishes of the Weir family to be relevant in debate, which is regrettable, to say the least.

Mr. Simpson then goes on to reference the government's revision of the first line of the refrain, which at the time read:

O Canada, glorious and free!

And later was revised to read as:

God keep our land, glorious and free!

Mr. Simpson addresses the intent of the original text in the following way:

Judge Weir's concept, according to my mother, was that it was up to individual Canadians to support Canada, and not leave the job up to some deity.

To say that the beauty and grace of this nation are our responsibility to foster is a strong sentiment indeed, for we, as Canadians, must always put our country before ourselves.

The letter continues:

In respect to the "stand on guard" issue, in his own words, Judge Weir explained: "This song of mine was not a translation in any respect . . ., it was an independent composition of which the central idea was: `We stand on guard for thee.' Written six years before the Great War, this sentiment was not at all intended in a military sense, but rather as a warning to guard against the insidious forces of dissension from within our own household." It is indeed regrettable that, had the 1921 revision been popularly known, there would have been no need for any changes.

Judge Robert Stanley Weir spent 13 years composing and editing his version of "O Canada," and through the course of mere months of closed-door deliberations, the government effectively trampled on the meaning of the original text. Today, however, we are not yet debating whether or not to revert the lyrics to Judge Weir's revised version. In fact, this debate transcends the concept of gender inclusion. Today, in this chamber, we are debating whether or not we believe literary integrity to be a cornerstone of our society. We are debating whether or not to set a new course and to do the best we can to adhere to Judge Weir's wishes.

Symbols of a nation's heritage are intended to be static. They are not intended to be altered or adjusted as we see fit.

As so many of my esteemed colleagues have echoed, our national anthem is not ours to change. As Senator Fraser said, we are not poets.

This anthem is the sole property of the Canadian people, a vast majority of whom are adamantly opposed to this revision of the text. Furthermore, I would submit that the only rightful revisions to this text would be those directly endorsed by Judge Weir. As Judge Weir has since passed on, it is obvious that any legitimate revision of his work would be a revision that he himself penned.

While I firmly believe the anthem to be gender neutral in its current form, some of my colleagues wish to amend this line of the anthem in the interest of explicit gender inclusion.

I would suggest that the words "thou dost in us command" from Judge Weir's first draft achieve this goal, while respecting the memory of Judge Weir and the integrity of his work.

Motion in Amendment

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Therefore, honourable senators, I move:

That Bill C-210 be not now read a third time, but that it be amended in the schedule, on page 2, by replacing the words "in all of" with the words "thou dost in".

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: It is moved by Senator Plett, seconded by Senator Wells that Bill C-210 be not now read a third time but that it be amended in the schedule, on page 2, by replacing the words "in all of" with the words "thou dost in."

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