Jack Knox: O Canada, on guard for better or for verse

They want to change the words to O Canada, and we are supposed to be upset.

This is what we do when people mess with tradition: wrap ourselves in the flag and declare that no, no, no, you can never, ever change the national anthem.

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Never mind that our flag only dates from 1965, when they threw out the old red ensign, or that O Canada was tweaked as recently as 1968, when they dumped a couple of the “stand on guards” and added the “God keep our land” bit.

In fact, there were some 40 English-language versions of O Canada before Robert Stanley Weir’s 1908 lyrics were adopted. And even that one was altered, Weir’s “thou dost in us command” being changed to “in all thy sons command” in 1913.

It’s the latter phrase that a group of Canadian women now propose changing to the gender-neutral “in all of us command.” Advocates of the idea include Margaret Atwood and Canada’s lone female prime minister, Kim Campbell.

Campbell, you might recall, was prime minister for approximately 12 minutes at the end of the Mulroney era, being handed the reins of power just as the horse died. Her tenure was comparable to that of Admiral Karl Doenitz, who ran Germany just long enough to order its surrender after the death of Hitler. Calling Kim Campbell a former prime minister is like saying James Spader starred in The Office.

If you want to get upset about tradition, consider this: In 146 years, Canada has had a female prime minister for just 133 days. (In fact, Port Alberni’s Campbell was also the only prime minister born in B.C.) That’s of greater concern than a minor reworking of the anthem.

But jeez, people get fussed about this stuff, particularly at sporting events where the anthems get thrown around like political footballs. Canucks fans who normally mouth O Canada in a barely audible murmur thunder like the Red Army Chorus when Vancouver plays Chicago in the playoffs. Victoria lacrosse fans grumbled when a few of the Six Nations Chiefs supporters stayed seated during the anthem at last month’s Mann Cup. Back in 1995, when Las Vegas was in the CFL, it caused a minor international incident when some lounge singer sang O Canada to the tune of O Christmas Tree.

It’s not just a Canadian thing. Some Brits got in a snit when the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (translation: “Try pronouncing that, you English bastards”) was sung at the FA Cup final. In France, where publicly insulting the national anthem is against the law, the interior minister threatened to charge Parisians of North African descent who booed La Marseillaise at a France-Tunisia soccer game.

Can see why North Africans might not like the song, though. La Marseillaise has a xenophobic bent, warning of foreign invaders who are, as the first verse puts it, “coming into our midst/ To cut the throats of your sons and consorts.” The chorus urges the French to slaughter the foreigners right back: “Let impure blood/ Water our furrows.” Sounds like something Voldemort would sing in Harry Potter.

It is not the only anthem dipped in gore. Mexicans sing “War, war! Let the national banners be soaked in waves of blood,” Italians belt out “We are ready to die” and Vietnamese warble “The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes.”

Then there’s Algeria: “When we spoke, nobody listened to us/ So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm/ And the sound of machine guns as our melody.” Algeria sounds alarmingly like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.

O Canada, by comparison, sounds as though it was written by Sharon, Lois and Bram — though there is a certain florid quality to the original French lyrics, penned by Adolphe-Basile Routhier in 1880: “O Canada/terre de nos aieux/ Ton front est la première étoile/ numero dix, Guy Lafleur.” (I might not have that quite right, most of my French having been gleaned from Montreal Canadiens broadcasts in the 1970s.)

The French version has its own exclusivity, though, the line “As is thy arm ready to wield the sword, so also it is ready to carry the cross” fencing out both pacifists and non-Christians. Better tell Kim Campbell.

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