Altering national anthem not unpatriotic

The old saying about sticks and stones tells us words can never hurt us, but there’s no doubt they make an impact.

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The old saying about sticks and stones tells us words can never hurt us, but there’s no doubt they make an impact.

That was never more evident than on Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City, when Juno-winning Toronto R&B singer Jully Black performed O Canada at the NBA All-Star Game, changing one word in the lyrics to Canada’s national anthem.

Instead of “our home and native land,” Ms. Black sang “our home on native land,” giving her acknowledgment of Indigenous history a bit of vocal emphasis to drive it home.

Ms. Black defended her decision in interviews after the performance, saying her lyrics merely reflected the truth.

“There can be no reconciliation without truth. They tie the two words together, truth and reconciliation,” she told Yahoo News Canada.

While reaction to her performance and her message — which garnered coverage everywhere from the BBC to Fox News — was overwhelmingly positive, Ms. Black’s pointed lyrical choice wasn’t a slam dunk. Some commentators accused the singer of putting words in the mouths of the Canadian people; in recent days, the singer, who is Black, has been subjected to a barrage of racist, threatening messages on social media.

As a reflection of a country that, one hopes, is always moving forward, learning, improving and embracing modernity, an anthem should not be a static document. Many countries have altered their official songs — some dramatically — to reflect a change in regime or to update lyrics that could be deemed offensive, inaccurate or old-fashioned.

The notion that O Canada is sacrosanct is at odds with its rambling journey to becoming the national anthem. The song itself has been transformed myriad times over the years, in ways both subtle and overt.

At Jets games, fans belting out the anthem in the arena stress the words “True North” in a way that has nothing to do with the intended meaning of Robert Stanley Weir, who wrote the English version of the lyrics in 1908.

The original lyrics were French, penned by judge and poet Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier in 1880. Weir’s non-literal adaptation largely abandoned Routhier’s religious and warlike imagery for more generic themes of patriotism and pride, but the intended sentiments live on in the French version; it’s likely many Canadians could not accurately recite those words, nor tell you their meaning.

In the 1970s, Montreal tenor Roger Doucet put his own bilingual spin on the anthem at televised sporting events, altering not only the lyrics, but the tune of the last stanza so definitively that it became the standard way to perform the song.

The best-known change is probably the most recent, in which the words “in all thy sons command” were officially changed to “in all of us command” in 2018. This shift away from unnecessarily gendered language had been championed by many over the years, including former governor general Michaëlle Jean, but it was finally made official after Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger’s Bill C-210 passed in the Senate.

Glossed over in the heated debate was the fact Weir’s initial English version — which waged a successful war of attrition against other more direct translations of the French — originally rendered the phrase “thou dost in us command.”

Did making O Canada’s lyrics gender neutral immediately end misogyny and solve sexism? Of course not, but it was a simple step toward making all Canada’s citizens feel represented by the anthem.

Indigenous people in Canada know words don’t mean much if actions don’t follow. But maybe if we start talking the talk, it’s more likely we’ll walk the walk when it comes to reconciliation.

Words can’t hurt us, but maybe they can start to heal us.

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