Canada’s National Anthem Is Now Gender Neutral, Thanks To These Feminist Activists

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The Canadian medallists at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics are making history in more ways than one: when they mount the podium as gold medallists, they'll be singing along to their country's new gender-neutral anthem, according to the Guardian. And the anthem alteration isn't just for the Olympics; it's been permanently shifted in Canadian law after legislation passed at the end of January 2018 to alter "O Canada"'s lyrics permanently. The change is very small, comprising just two words: the first stanza has replaced the line "in all thy sons command" with "in all of us command". But the implications are very big, and the women who created the change have been working to achieve this landmark for decades.

The first activist to spearhead the movement was Frances Wright, who was the head of the Famous 5 Foundation, celebrating the efforts of the five women who changed the definition of "personhood" under Canadian law to include women in 1929. (If that historical tidbit boggles your mind, join the club.) In the process of attempting to get a monument to the Famous 5 erected in Canada, Wright, who immigrated to Canada as a child from South Africa because her parents were fleeing apartheid, started asking questions about the national anthem. The opening lines, she thought, were sexist; Canada didn't just produce sons.

But Wright's efforts went nowhere for much of the '90s and early 2000s, despite the fact that the problematic line in "O Canada" wasn't actually in its original version. According to the New York Times, the first iteration of the anthem, when it was written in the 1880s, was more gender-neutral, with the stanza reading "True patriot love thou dost in us command.” At some point, that line was changed to talk about sons — possibly, The Guardian argues, in 1913, to coincide with more military action in Canada.

Wright's campaign was gradually taken up by other powerful women. Dr. Vivienne Poy, who was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1998 — the first Canadian of Asian descent to be elected — started to apply political pressure to have the line changed. And she attracted the help of politician Nancy Ruth, one of the most vocally feminist political figures in Canadian politics, who is openly gay and had a reputation for swearing in the Senate.

"I wanted women to be included in the song of their country," Ruth told the BBC. "I wanted to be included in the song of my country at least once before I died. It didn't seem a big thing." However, Poy told the BBC that she had encountered serious opposition, particularly from other politicians, including one who took a potentially game-changing vote in 2003 on the issue and "destroyed it for his ego".

However, they were slowly gaining steam. Poy and Ruth garnered support from other famous Canadians, including writer Margaret Atwood, who penned The Handmaid's Tale, and former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who was head of the Canadian government in 1993. "The 'us' in the national anthem explicitly includes women and immigrants in a way that 'sons' didn’t," Campbell said in a radio interview after the change was legalized. “It's a tile in the mosaic of progress. It alone, of itself, is not going to make a difference, but it's a piece of the puzzle.” Ruth retired in 2016, but Poy and other lawmakers kept pushing, alongside male supporters like Mauril Bélanger, who had supported the change since 1980 but, tragically, only gained public support and attention for it when he was diagnosed with ALS in 2015. Changing the words of the anthem was Bélanger's priority until his death in 2016, and the subject of his last ever speech to the Senate.

The other woman who pushed the change over the line was Senator Frances Lankin, who kept the fight going in the Senate, even when a bitter 18-month stall by the Conservative opposition up until early 2018 kept threatening to throw decades of work away. Lankin, an independent senator from Ontario, explained to the New York Times that she'd received many telephone calls from "very angry people" who "referred to the words as being almost sacred. When I’ve walked them through the history, they’re shocked.” After the bill had been passed, she told CBC that it had been a long time coming. "There's been 30 years plus of activity trying to make our national anthem, this important thing about our country, inclusive of all of us. This may be small, it's about two words, but it's huge [...] we can now sing it with pride knowing the law will support us in terms of the language. I'm proud to be part of the group that made this happen."

Canada's anthem change may be minute in words, but it's giant in scope. Whether it's being sung by athletes at the Olympics or school kids in Canadian classrooms, it's a reflection of the country's true self — and it wouldn't have happened if not for a legion for very brave, very persistent women.