Yesterday, with perhaps more fervour than usual, many Canadians proudly sang O Canada as we, collectively and individually, reflected upon our national identity and heritage.
But a growing number of Canadians either gritted their teeth and mouthed a line or two, or fell silent when others sang the phrases “God keep our land glorious and free!” or, in the French version, “car ton bras sait porter l’épée, it sait porter la croix.”
Reflecting our history, both versions of the anthem have a clear religious, even Christian wording.
Yet, as Canada becomes ever more multinational and pluralistic, are those words still appropriate?
It’s a fascinating debate with wide-ranging implications.
The globeandmail.com invited their regular panel from several major faith-based communities and a representative of the atheist/humanist/free thinker groups to debate these questions:
Given Canada’s history of intertwined politics and religion, and given Canada’s increasing multicultural nature, should all references to “God” be removed from our national anthem, O Canada? What does the inclusion of “God” say about our country? What would its elimination say about our country?
As usual, the panelists each have written a short essay and have answered questions from our readers — all of which you can read at the bottom of this page.
The members of our panel are:
1) Michael W. Higgins – President of St. Thomas University in Fredericton and past president of St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo. Dr. Higgins is a broadcaster, author and co-author of numerous books and CBC Ideas series, including Heretic Blood, The Muted Voice, Power and Peril and Stalking the Holy.
2) Jennifer A. Harris is an Anglican Christian. She is assistant professor of Christianity and Culture at the University of Toronto. Her teaching interests include Christianity and contemporary popular culture, sacred space, and the Bible in medieval society.
3) Lorna Dueck is an Evangelical Christian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Globe. She is also executive producer of Listen Up TV, a weekly newsmagazine on spiritual perspectives in current events, seen Sundays on Global TV, and Thursdays on CTS, Salt and Light TV and Christian Channel.
4) Sheema Khan also writes a monthly column for The Globe. She has a Masters degree in physics and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard. She has worked in R&D, is an inventor and has worked at law firms in intellectual property law. Ms. Khan also served as chair of The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) from 2000-2005.
5) Justin Trottier is executive director of The Centre for Inquiry Ontario, making him the first full-time paid staff member at the first venue dedicated to humanists and freethinkers in Canada. He is co-founder of the political advocacy group Canadian Secular Alliance, as well as president of the multimedia outreach group Freethought Association of Canada.
Michael Higgins: Although in a multicultural, multiracial and multifaith society, one should always be attentive to the particular nuances, needs and sensitivities of all the constituent parts, the temptation to eradicate difference in the interests of a common harmony is a false irenicism.
True harmony — not the ersatz kind preferred by ideologues — is built on the pillars of mutual respect, intelligent discernment of history, and genuine openness to correction.
The erasure, temporary or permanent, of God in our national vocabulary — anthem, Constitution, Charter, etc. — is hardly enlightenment.
The passion to do so has the whiff of Robespierre about it: Temple of the Goddess of Reason, the radical emergence of a new calendar, the extirpation of historical memory.
Not a Canada Day comfort.
God, for me at least, is not a static or single-definition concept. It admits of infinite — well not quite Infinite — variety and resonance.
If we mean by “God” a transcendent reality that attaches greater significance to our life as a community-in-time than historical record alone can guarantee, if we mean by “God” the attendant recognition of our collective dependence on an encompassing power that perudres beyond our numberless “isms” and sovereign entities, and if we mean by “God” a centre or locus of meaning that is trans-historical, then I am for its retention and celebration.
If, however, the inclusion of “God” in our national vocabulary and in the rituals that define us as a people is theologically specific, intolerant of personal interpretation, and invoked by political authorities to validate their judgments and decisions, then I am for its elimination.
God as hostage to political whim is a fearful reality. We know its kind in our time. The identification of God with the state is an invitation to misrule. We have seen the results.
But this is not the Canadian context. The calculated effort to delete God from our national discourse is itself a form of misplaced zeal.
Leave God alone. The alternatives, as George Steiner reminds us, can be quite grisly.
Jennifer Harris: When I was growing up in Toronto, there was no reference to God in O Canada.
The original set of English lyrics, by R. S. Weir, makes no such mention in its opening verse, and this was the version sung in my school, at hockey games, etc. Even the old Anglican hymn book, which includes our national anthem, made no mention of God in the popular first verse. Where we now sing “God keep our land glorious and free,” we once sang “O Canada, glorious and free.”
I am not exactly sure when the words were changed. No doubt, it had something to do with the creation of O Canada as our official national anthem in the 1980s. The French-language version has always been explicitly Christian.
This reference to “God” in the English-language version is as blandly theistic as possible, allowing for the vast majority of people in Canada to sing our anthem convincingly. There is something quite Canadian about this desire for inclusion.
While the removal of this reference would indeed be even more inclusive, something would be lost. The newer lyric says something significant that the older version, written at the turn of the “Canadian Century,” does not: that Canada’s glory and freedom needs protecting. And this is a truth worth noting!
Certainly, we can debate about who protects Canada’s glory and freedom.
I, for one, believe that this task falls to its citizens. The request that God keep our land free need not (indeed, does not) abrogate our responsibility to an unknown, unseen force.
Rather, it reminds us, every time we sing our national anthem, that there is something very precious about Canada that requires our labour to protect. In an age of increasing fundamentalisms (religious, secular, and otherwise), this particular statement of God’s work in our land seems particularly fitting. The “God” we sing about reminds us to keep Canada and Canadians free.
The removal of “God” from the national anthem would be another step in the evacuation of religion from the public sphere.
The so-called separation of church and state is an American invention that has no real place in Canada’s heritage. And we have only to look to the United States to see how ineffective such a vision is.
Canada, on the other hand, should continue to maintain a respectful balance where religion is welcomed in the public domain (in schools, etc.), so long as it is not evangelistic and harmful.
This is the kind of freedom that makes Canada the fine country it is and well worth singing about.
I am sorry I’m going to be answering this important debate on my BlackBerry as my husband drives me to Ottawa so I can finally sing O Canada on Parliament Hill.
We’ve long wanted to co-ordinate summer travel around the ceremonies in the capital, so we’re on our way. As the fireworks burst over the Jacques Cartier Park, I will pray that God would keep our land glorious and free.
That would include a freedom which allows people of faith to vocalize their belief in God in our national anthem. Asking, as it were, for help in defending glorious freedom that humanity has shown it is incapable of maintaining.
More than 80% of Canadians profess to believe in God, and the non-specific wording about the deity in the English national anthem can cover all our interpretations of who this God is.
That is freedom, freedom to associate your faith with your expression of what it is to be a Canadian. It is an integrated, respectful reality that acknowledges Canadians who are believers in God.
The French version carries the phrase “car ton bras sait porter l’épée, it sait porter la croix.” (“since you can carry the sword, you can carry the cross”) and I, too, wish it could be modernized, or replaced with a phrase from the fourth and final stanza of O Canada which reads:
Ruler Supreme, who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our Dominion, in thy loving care.
Help us to find, O God, in thee,
A lasting rich reward.
As waiting for the better day,
We ever stand on guard.
God keep our land, glorious and free.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!
That old stanza was introduced to me not in Christian schools I attended in Canada but during the revival of grass roots prayer movements that sprung up for the nation around 2000.
It’s an interesting question Jennifer raises about how did “God keep our land” make its way into our anthem?
It was the Jesuit-educated Prime Minister Trudeau who proposed that we include a mention of God in our Constitution, an ecumenical group lobbied to help his idea survive, (thus acknowledging the supremacy of God is in our Constitutional preamble) and here we are today, still lobbying to keep a public expression of God in our country’s ideals.
To lose it would be a step away from freedom.
On a personal note, my eyes begin to overflow every time I hear it. On Canada Day. At hockey games. At my children’s’ schools.
Our anthem begin with unassuming dignity and resonates with an expansiveness that parallels our glorious landscape and limitless human potential. O Canada has come to represent so much of what I love of this nation.
La belle province of Québec figures prominently in the origins of our national anthem. The score was completed in 1880 by Québec composer Calixa Lavallée, and the French language version soon thereafter by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. That version remains with us today.
In 1908, Robert Weir composed an English language version on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of Québec City. A few slight changes were made over the years resulting in the current version.
The reference to “God” in the English version is in harmony with the preamble of our Charter. It reflects a recognition of the sovereignty of God to sustain and protect this land.
Most Canadians, I believe, have no issue with this reference. In fact, a few years ago, when then-MP Svend Robinson attempted to introduce a motion to remove any reference to “God” in the Charter, Canadians responded overwhelmingly against the idea.
If the reference were to be removed, it would signify a sharp departure from the acknowledgement of a spiritual connection that is part and parcel of our past and present.
While many Canadians may not ascribe all that much to organized religion, I believe that many do recognize that spiritual connection within — especially when contemplating our incredible landscape. And, when reflecting upon the many bounties that we have here, such as peace and freedom, let’s not forget that this spiritual base serves to lay a moral foundation for many Canadians as well.
Recognition of a greater entity — God — as sovereign, is also a sign of humility.
I do, however, have a problem with the following passage in the French version: “Car ton bras sait porter l épée, il sait porter la croix,” which roughly translates as “Since you can carry the sword, you can carry the cross.”
It presents a crusading image, that is completely out of synch with the present reality. It also refers exclusively to Christianity — a reflection of the religious landscape of 1880, but not that of the 21st century.
And, it is insensitive to the experience of our aboriginal peoples at the hands of the church and state.
Should the words to our anthem be amended? At some point, yes. Some believe the reference to “all thy sons’ command” should be amended to become more inclusive (I agree).
I once came across a t-shirt that said “O Canada, our home on native land.” Our anthem was composed without any recognition of the Inuit and First Nations communities.
Given the recent historic apology to our aboriginal communities, we should have an anthem that includes the rich legacy of aboriginal peoples — who are the original inhabitants of this land. This may mean amending the reference to God, to also include reference to aboriginal beliefs.
Hopefully, Canadians will be open to such changes as we learn more about aboriginal history, and from the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The inclusion of “God” in our national anthem should be removed, as should all reference to a deity (eg. government prayers and our constitutional preamble) that a quarter of Canadians reject and which is offensive, disrespectful and intolerant to those citizens who are non-theistic.
How would the anthem sound if this were done? Why, just like the original.
Forgive the history lesson, but it is crucial to realize that the national anthem has evolved considerably over time. Many English versions were drafted since 1880. One that happened to gain popularity was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, lawyer and Recorder of the City of Montréal. This version had the line simply “O Canada, glorious and free.” That held fast until 1980 when the National Anthem Act officially modified it to “God keep our land glorious and free.”
Incidentally, it was around this time that God found its way into the constitutional preamble.
Let me anticipate charges that Canada was founded on the Christian tradition. If we look at our founding values soberly, we might have to admit they include invasion, oppression and genocide, but I trust those are not the values one is referring to here.
Firstly, it seems racist to ignore the contribution of First Nations by instead focusing on a religion that was from the earliest days forced upon them.
Such revisionist history also ignores the complex set of forces that propelled the settling of Canada, including trade, commerce, exploration and imperialism.
Religion was certainly part of that mix, but it was not instrumental and it was often divisive (consider Protestant Upper Canada and Catholic Lower Canada).
More important, I believe, is our legal framework — provided by British common law, the French civil code and parliamentary government, all based on some form of church-state separation, where religion was up to a citizen’s private conscience.
Besides, are all traditions worthy of everlasting life? Consider slavery, atrocious child labour practices, or inhuman public punishments like drawing and quartering. These traditions are all as old as religion, certainly older then Christianity. Does that speak in their favour?
Consider the conclusion we’d reach if every change to our society was seen as counter to Christianity. That would have to imply female suffrage was anti-Christian.
Since I’m already in over my head and as we’ve seen that traditional can change, let me make the bold suggestion that several passages in our anthem are in need of review. These include the sexism of “in all thy sons’ command” and the immigrant-unfriendly “our home and native land!”
Canada needs an anthem that will unite our citizens, regardless of sex, religiosity, spoken language or place of birth.
Let’s uphold the traditions of evolving our sphere of equality and of government neutrality with respect to religion and conscience, rather than upholding a single word in a document as young as me.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, JimmyMac, after a July 2, 2008 article in The Globe And Mail