Team Canada, walking during the Opening Ceremony of the
Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018.
If any of its members win a gold medal, they’ll be
hearing a new version of their national anthem.
Jamie
Squire/Getty Images
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Jamie
Squire/Getty Images

Team Canada, walking during the Opening Ceremony of the
Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. If
any of its members win a gold medal, they’ll be hearing a
new version of their national anthem.

Jamie
Squire/Getty Images

“O Canada,” reads the first line of anthem celebrating the vast
country ranking second in the world on the basis of landmass.
It continues, “our home and native land. True patriot love in
all our sons command.” Or at least it did, until this
Wednesday, when that second line was officaly altered to read:
“in all of us command.”

The two-word change took over thirty years.

The music to “O Canada” was commissioned to mark
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day on June 24, 1880, composed by
half-Canuck, half-Yankee composer Calixa Lavallée, who cut his
musical teeth in the American Civil War as a cornet player. The
lyrics, written in French by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, were
always gender neutral in their original language, as well
significantly more hawkish and religious in nature, suggesting
Canada can hold the sword just as much as the cross. The
English version, meanwhile, is less focused on spiritual and
militaristic proselytizing and more on patriotism, which can
make
the bilingual version
, which vacillates between English and
French, more than a little odd for those who understand both.

The National Anthem Act of 1980 finally, after a range of
English translations over the decades, established the official
English lyrics and the long-disputed reference to “sons
commanding” (a post-World War I alteration of the original 1908
translation: “Thou dost in us command”). Complaints about them
began pretty much as soon as they were ensconced in law.

The initial work towards the official change was begun by
now-retired Liberal Party senator Vivienne Poy, who began
stumping for the alteration in 2002. Notably, “sons command”
wasn’t the only problem — some disputed the mention of “God
keep our land,” while “home and native land” denied the history
of the country’s First Nations. Poy, for better or worse,
focused on the gendered translation.

As the first Canadian senator of Asian descent, she recalls
being challenged. “I remember people saying, how can you as an
immigrant, [Poy was born in Hong Kong] come into this country
and change our national anthem,” she tells NPR Music. “But the
national anthem is for every Canadian!” Even though Poy
received significant support through 2003, the motion lagged
amidst a prorogation of parliament. But she kept at it: “I
believed in what I was doing, and I wanted to see it done.”

In 2006, Poy handed the reins of her lyric-change campaign over
to Conservative senator Nancy Ruth, who kept up the discussion
— before her own retirement in 2016. From there, Frances
Lankin, an independent senator, took over.

While all this was happening in the Senate, the lyric change
was being taken up in the House of Commons. Mauril Bélanger, a
member of parliament who represents the area around Canada’s
capital of Ottawa, put forth a bill which was actually passed
in June 2016, coinciding with his last appearance in the house
before he died, of ALS, in August of the same year. In an
interview with NPR Music, Mona Fortier, Belanger’s successor,
underlines his legacy: “He recognized that every Canadian needs
to be included in our anthem. We can bring this new version to
recognize who we are, internationally, nationally and locally.”

Like in the U.S., both houses need to pass a bill, so it
required Lankin to take Bélanger’s bill and push it through to
passage in the Senate. Despite a poll in late 2016 showing over
70 percent of Canadians supported the change, it still faced
strong opposition, most of which was focused on preserving the
“tradition” of the anthem, and arguing for the decision to be
made via public referendum. Lankin respects the difference of
opinion, but “there was nothing new to say after 30 years of
debating this,” she tells NPR Music.

Lankin acknowledges that the change will not confer equal pay
or employment access on the whole of the population, but
stressed that it addresses “the filters that we see our life
through,” and respects the ever-expansive and fluid definitions
and crumbling boundaries of gender.

“That’s the evolution,” explains Lankin. “When this discussion
started there was no public knowledge or understanding of
‘non-binary,’ with respect to gender. So this inclusivity
includes our original goal, but it is much broader than that in
today’s context.”

The change will be heard whenever Canada wins gold at the
Winter Olympics, which began today —
as long as they remember the new lyrics
.

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