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O Canada!

Today is International Women’s Day, which serves only to remind us that masculine rule is still considered the norm, otherwise why would we need one specific day? In fact, why do newspapers need to give us Women’s sections, or even Woman’s Hour? There’s no need for Man’s Hour. Even English law assumes the norm is sexed male and does not refer to us equally; in fact, England remains one of the last of the English speaking countries to bow to masculine rule when drafting legislation. Meg Munn, Minister for Women and Equality, calling for gender neutrality in legislative drafting on this day in 2007, said that ‘It may seem a small thing in one sense, but language is important. We have a society in which we believe men and women are equal, so why shouldn’t the law refer to us equally?’ Why shouldn’t everything refer to us equally? It is an issue Canada is aware of. Even Wales and Ireland have gone some way to addressing the issue. Ireland’s Oireachtas has endorsed gender neutrality for over a decade. But, unlike Canada, at least our national anthem reflects our Queen. However, that country’s PM, Stephen Harper, last week proposed to Parliament that its national anthem, ‘O Canada’, is made gender neutral. ( It is somewhat surprising this has been overlooked when one considers how Canada began drafting up Acts in non-sexist language around 1991. They have even let women join the Mounties since 1974, although I’m sure they wouldn’t allow their motto to become ‘The Mountie Always Gets Her Man’ Yet, judging by the reaction to Harper’s gender neutral proposal, anyone would think he had proposed mass castration. A poll conducted by reported 95% of the 2,582 respondents supported leaving the anthem as it is.

Why shouldn’t such a nation’s historical musical symbol remain the way it is? Partly because the current anthem was only made official in 1980 – hardly historical, although it was first recorded as being sung in 1901. There is also the point that the original 1908 poem upon which it was based, by Judge Robert Stanley Weir, was gender neutral! Yes, that’s right – gender neutral over a century ago, but a furore against reverting back to it in the twenty-first century! The particular line in the current anthem causing the most trouble is the line ‘True patriot love in all thy sons command’. Weir’s original version instead had ‘True patriot love thou dost in us command’. So, do they make one line gender neutral and thereby acknowledge half the population, or leave it as it is and remain true to the masculine rule? The full version of the Weir poem also includes ‘O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies/May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise’. Allowing concessions for the essentialism of ‘gentle’ maidens and ‘stalwart’ sons, at least in 1908 there was still the theoretical possibility of maidens rising, even if there wasn’t the actual possibility. What Canada has, and will keep unless the proposed change is passed, is the actual possibility of maidens rising, but not the theoretical.
Yet, before you are swayed by those who shrug and ask ‘what does it matter’ it is worth remembering that they who own the language, own the power. Feminist scholar, Dale Spender, declared in 1985 that ‘there is sexism in language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms.

Should ‘O Canada’ remain as it is? Is there a particular British national text that would particularly benefit from becoming gender neutral?

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