‘O Canada’ Op-ed: Replying to Critics

Last weekend, I published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail entitled “’O Canada’ without the cross – why it’s time to revisit the lyrics of the national anthem.” It got many comments, a considerable number of them critical. In this post, I will reply to the major arguments raised by the critics.

Quite a few commenters, however, agreed with me that the French lines in the bilingual version of ‘O Canada’ were too Christian (and some also thought too militaristic) and should be rewritten. They didn’t necessarily agree with my specific suggestion of replacing “la croix” with “nos fois,” but they agreed with my general point. Now, on to the critics.

Covid, Covid, Covid

Some commenters wrote that Covid and its economic devastation are the main issues facing the country, and The Globe should focus on them. Indeed, skimming any recent issue makes clear that it does. But The Globe in particular and public discourse in general should not focus on Covid and the economy to the exclusion of everything else. I had long thought that the bilingual version of the national anthem needs to be updated, and I wanted to provoke public discussion about it.

I submitted the article just after Christmas, recognizing that this is generally a slow news period and it might get more attention if published at year’s end or early in the new year. The article was accepted on January 3 but wasn’t published until the end of the month because so much “breaking news” kept happening: the Capitol Hill riot, Covid virus mutations and vaccine developments, and the resignation of the Governor-General.

Maitres Chez Nous

Some commenters made the argument that, as an anglophone, I have no standing to discuss the French words to the national anthem. I think this is essentially a separatist argument that anglophones and francophones shouldn’t engage in dialogue about each other’s culture or politics. I have never accepted that argument: indeed in 1983 I published a book about the conflict in the Seventies over bilingual air traffic control, which began as a Quebec language issue.

But the maître chez nous argument does not apply in this case because I was discussing the French lines of the bilingual version of ‘O Canada.’ As a functionally bilingual anglophone who prefers to sing the bilingual version, I want the best anthem possible.

What about Hatikvah?

I probably made a mistake in writing that I was Jewish, which led several commenters to engage in whataboutism. They were trying to discredit my argument about “O Canada” by implying that I was contradicting myself because as a Jew I would necessarily embrace the lyrics of the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which Israeli Arabs see as exclusionary.

While I could say that the argument is whataboutism and leave it at that, I think it is important to respond to its substance. I’m a Jew and not an Israeli citizen and I have no obligation or expectation to endorse the policies of the Israeli Government. I certainly recognize that Hatikvah expresses a Zionist viewpoint with which Israeli Arabs are uncomfortable. This issue has been discussed and will continue to be discussed by Israelis of all faiths and, at some time in the future, they may revise the lyrics to be more inclusive.

Canada Was (and still is) a Christian Country

Many commenters, with varying degrees of forcefulness and politeness, made the argument that Canada has been a Christian country since it was settled by Europeans, that the majority of the population still is Christian, and that it is perfectly acceptable to retain Christian symbols in the national anthem.

I certainly agree that Canada was a Christian country. Indeed, my parents’ generation in the Thirties and Forties changed their surname from Borinsky to Borins to avoid Christian anti-Semitism. And in the Fifties and Sixties I was required to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the start of school every day. I still remember it just as well as the Shema.

But, as Canada has become a more diverse country in terms of religions and ethnicity, the Canadian state has become more secular, a development I and, I think, other non-Christians welcome. (As an aside, I am fascinated by the contrast between the Canadian state becoming more secular over the last fifty years and the campaign by Christian evangelicals in the US to erase, in their terminology, the division between church and state.)

The issue here will come down to public opinion. If the Christian majority cares more strongly about retaining the reference to the cross in the bilingual version than the non-Christian minority cares about removing it, then the reference will remain. My op-ed is an attempt to raise the question for public discussion in the context of the increasing secularization of the Canadian state.

Finally, some commenters made the point that the French lyrics used the words “epee” and “croix” metaphorically, or as a synecdoche. “Epee” represents military values and traditions and “croix” represents religious values and traditions. Other commenters, however, would not want those values included in the national anthem. Even if you do want those values retained – as I do – new lyrics that do not refer to one religion could be chosen.

Entitled to their own Lyrics, not their own Melody

Paraphrasing Danial Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum about opinions and facts, several commenters wrote that the lyrics are unimportant. Pluralistically, they suggested we dispense with official versions of the national anthem and that citizens choose their own lyrics. That might well be a solution if there are sharply differing opinions about appropriate lyrics for the national anthem. On the other hand, dialogue about the lyrics of the national anthem is a form of national introspection that, from time to time, isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the middle of a raging pandemic is not the best time for such a discussion. But there is no reason not to raise the issue.


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