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It's time to make Canada's anthem gender neutral

(Note: a shorter version of this speech was delivered before the Senate on April 11, 2017) 

Bill C-210 – An Act to amend the National Anthem (gender)

I am pleased to rise today to support at third reading the late Honourable Mauril Bélanger’s private member Bill, C-210, to make our national anthem “O Canada” gender neutral.

I would like to quote him on the focus of this bill:

“With my bill, I want to pay tribute to all the women who have worked and fought to build and shape the Canada that we know today. I want to at long last honour their sacrifices and contribution.”

The proposed change would replace “all thy sons command” with “all of us command.” Changing two words, from “thy sons” to “of us” would render ‘O Canada’ English lyrics gender neutral and inclusive of all. The French lyrics are gender neutral and inclusive.

It is worth noting that the phrase “True patriot love thou dost in us command” was in the original accepted English lyrics of 1908.

In 1914, the year the Great War broke out, this wording was replaced by “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” 

There is no evidence as to why the change to “sons” was made, although it is worth noting that the women’s suffrage movement was at its most controversial around 1913, and by 1914 and 1916 there was an enormous surge of patriotism during the First World War, at a time when only men could serve in the armed forces.

Times have changed, and since 1989, all military occupations were open to women, with the exception of submarine service, which opened in 2000. Throughout the 1990s, the introduction of women into the combat occupations increased the potential recruiting pool by about 100 per cent. It also provided opportunities for all persons to serve their country to the best of their abilities. 

Discussion relating to discriminatory aspects of the anthem, such as the gender-exclusive use of “sons,” began to surface in the 1950s.  

In 1990, Toronto City Council voted in favour of replacing “thy sons” with “all of us” to be more gender-inclusive.

Similarly, in 2002, former Senator Vivienne Poy introduced a bill proposing the same, but the bill died on the order paper.

In 2010, the Throne Speech indicated plans to review the “original gender-neutral wording of the national anthem”; the Government changed its intent however due to some opposition at the time.

In 2013, support to revert back to the 1908 gender-neutral lyrics of O Canada was reignited by the ‘Restore Our Anthem’ campaign, headed by prominent women including:

  • Former Senator Poy,
  • Author Margaret Atwood,
  • Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell and
  • Former Senator Nancy Ruth


The Honourable Mauril Bélanger first introduced his private member bill on changes to “O Canada” on September 22nd, 2014 in the House of Commons as Bill C-624, An Act to Amend the National Anthem Act (gender). Parliament adjourned before the bill could come to a vote.

In 2015, M. Bélanger commissioned an opinion poll on the matter with Mainstreet Technologies. The numbers showed solid support for the proposed amendment: 58% approved of the change and only 19% disapproved. The results were based on questions to more than 5,000 Canadians.

On January 27, 2016, with the help of a text to speech program on his iPad, the honorable Member of Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier, who had championed the bill for years, re-introduced his private Member’s bill entitled An Act to amend the National Anthem Act (gender).  

On May 6, 2016, the Honorable Member of Ottawa-Vanier introduced second reading of his bill.

On June 15, 2016, you may recall the emotional and memorable appearance of the Honorable Member in the House of Commons to ensure that Bill C-210 advanced to a vote after third reading in Parliament. The Bill was approved on June 15 by a strong majority of 225 for and 74 against. Many Parliamentarians immediately stood up and sang “O Canada” in the House of Commons with the lyrics of ‘all of us.” 

After thorough debate at second reading in the Senate, and following the Honourable Member’s passing from ALS on August 15, 2016, the bill passed its clause-by-clause review on December 6, 2016 at the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

Canada is not the first country to seek to make its anthem more inclusive. In 2012, Austria changed its anthem to recognize women. In 2015, Switzerland ran a contest seeking more modern lyrics for its national song, which referred only to sons as well. The new chosen lyrics are gender neutral.

In closing, I would like to remind this Chamber that while Bill C-210 is a private member’s bill, it has the strong support of the Government. In addition, the House of Commons approved the changes with the support of 75 per cent of members, including support from each party represented in the House of Commons.

C-210 was also carried without amendments at the Senate committee under the sponsorship of former Senator Nancy Ruth, one of the Champions of the “Restore our Anthem Campaign” and “all of us” movement.

Since July 1, 1980 (when “O Canada” became our official national anthem) there have been ten private member’s bills introduced in Parliament to change the second line of the English anthem to words that include both genders.  one have passed. Bill C-210 is the eleventh bill to propose the gender neutral change, which has finally progressed to a third reading vote in the Senate.

Changes to the lyrics of “O Canada” over the years demonstrate that it has been a living document with changes that reflect the realities of Canadian culture. The National Anthem Act makes clear that the words of O Canada are in the public domain. They are our words. They belong to all Canadians. We can change them.

It took a courageous and determined man, a feminist, and a proud grandfather of two granddaughters, Mauril, as he liked to be called by all, to get C-210 through Parliament with the help of like-minded men and women from all parties in the House of Commons.

Times have changed, and now it is the Senate’s turn to do the right thing.

We have the opportunity to do justice by Canadian women of the past, of today and tomorrow.

Let’s show our respect and equal recognition of all genders by approving “all of us command.”

I strongly support Bill C-210 on its merit and encourage my fellow Senators to vote for it so that all Canadians may sing our national anthem as equals on July 1 on our 150th birthday celebration and from here on end.

Thank you.