Senator Pratte’s Doublespeak on the Two O Canadas

The French O Canada is an anachronism that must be interpreted metaphorically and remain intact. The English O Canada must be changed whenever fashions change because it is an evergreen document that must be taken literally.

This country has, in fact, two national anthems: the original French O Canada, which has remained unchanged since 1880, and Weir’s English version of O Canada. The two anthems say completely different things and bear no resemblance to one another, and therefore so perfectly represent the Two Solitudes for which Canada is so famous. The French O Canada recounts a glorious crusade, or civilizing mission, to Christianize North America; the English O Canada focuses on Canada’s being a northern landmass and a refuge for liberty.

This Bill C-210 proposes to change only the lyrics to the English O Canada, but it grants the privilege of leaving the original French O Canada intact. Senator Andre Pratte, part of the new Independent Senators’ Group, exemplifies Parliament’s hypocrisy and unequal treatment of the two O Canadas when he gave a speech on Third Reading on 6 April 2017.

First, Pratte made this interesting observation:

Usually Canadians respond when any attempt is made to tamper with tradition. Social media goes abuzz, our inboxes overflow and protests and petitions multiply. Yet this time there was relatively little reaction.

There has been so little reaction from Canadians for good reason: most of them are unaware that Bill C-210 even exists and is poised to become law. Frankly, that was deliberate. The Trudeau government is thankful for Belanger’s private members’ bill precisely because private members’ bills both attract less attention than government bills and provide the government plausible deniability. They learned the lesson from the Harper government, which announced in its Throne Speech in 2010 that they would “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.” This public and prominent declaration generated a huge backlash, and the Harper government abandoned the proposal.

He also makes a series of contradictory statements on the English and French O Canadas but never explains why Parliament should not treat them equally and make them both subject to revision.

One the one hand, he claims to oppose both political correctness and “its cousin, historical correctness” — both of which he considers a form of thoughtmurder; on the other hand, he intends to vote for a bill that will begin sanitizing the English O Canada for the sake of both political correctness and historical correctness.

I am an adversary of political correctness. I consider it the murderer of thought, and its cousin, historical correctness. Barring a few exceptional cases, I am opposed, for instance, to the renaming of streets, parks and buildings that have been named after historical figures, simply because these individuals are now controversial or because it has come to light that they have made mistakes, even serious ones. History is rarely black and white, though we tend to look at it that way through our lens of certainty. These names of historical figures must not be obliterated; they can be reminders of a complex past, nuanced by shades of grey, and they can serve as lessons for the future.

In other words, Pratte opposes political correctness and historical correctness — except where he doesn’t.

One the one hand, Pratte acknowledges that parliamentarians have already discussed altering also the phrase “Our home and native land” to “Our home and cherished land”, as well as removing God from the English O Canada altogether; on the other hand, he completely dismisses the idea that Parliament would eventually consider making those changes in subsequent legislation. How could he know that? Did he moonlight as a Time Lord while he worked as a newspaper editor? What did Pratte say in 2002 when the Senate first seriously discussed altering the lyrics to “True patriot love in all of us command” in Senator Viennne Poy’s private members’ bills? Andre Pratte has already tumbled down that slippery slope and banged his head on the way down.

As several honourable senators have pointed out, like in “all thy sons command,” other “O Canada” lyrics are equally out of step with what Canadian society has become. Yet, I am certain that Canadians would flat-out refuse to rewrite “O Canada, Our home and native land,” or “God keep our land glorious and free,” unless we find an alternative which, like the one proposed in Bill C-210, goes unnoticed and does not change the general theme of the lyrics that are sung.

But what could easily replace “native land”? Harder still, “God”? In my opinion, the fact that the bill proposes a change that does not impact the tradition of our national anthem explains why the public has been relatively indifferent.

Some have said that we’re headed down a slippery slope, but I don’t think that’s the case. Replacing “thy sons” with “of us” does not mean we would be tossing away an important piece of our history and tradition all in the name of political correctness, as suggested by Senator Wells, for whom I must say I have the utmost respect.

On the one hand, Pratte admits that he would oppose changes to the French O Canada on principle; on the other hand, he has no qualms about altering the text of the English O Canada and dismisses any concerns that changing them once will set the precedent for Parliament to change them again.

So if you ask me whether the lyrics of our national anthem should remain unchanged, spontaneously, I would say yes. That is certainly the case for the French lyrics, even though they no longer reflect the secular and pacifist nature of most of today’s francophone Canadians.   

On the one hand, the English lyrics to O Canada have turned “out of step with what Canada has become,” so Parliament must change them; on the other hand, the French lyrics to O Canada “no longer reflect the secular and pacifist nature” of French-Canadian culture, but Parliament should leave them intact. Don’t you see the difference?

One the one hand, Pratte takes “thy sons” and the English O Canada literally; on the other hand, he takes the civilizing mission — “For your arm knows how to wield the sword; it knows to how carry the cross” — of the French O Canada metaphorically.

Has Pratte listened to himself prattle on about this? This incoherent, self-contradictory speech exemplifies hypocrisy and doublespeak. Only an intellectual could square this circle and then claim that they were the same shape all along. The Hampster Wheel of Rationalization in his head must have spun off its axis and taken flight. He contributed to the Pour un Quebec lucide manifesto of 2005. Would it be too much to ask for Pratte to give un discours luicide sur les deux versions de l’Ô Canada? Sadly, I vote yes.

This evening, at 7:00 p.m., the Canadian Armed Forces are holding a ceremony at the national cenotaph to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Even if these Senators, who have, with no sense of irony, debated vandalizing and expunging “thy sons” from the English anthem underneath the paintings honouring the sacrifice of those who fought and died in the First World War, we shall remember thy sons, O Canada, who stood on guard for thee, who bled for thee, and who died for thee.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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3 Responses to Senator Pratte’s Doublespeak on the Two O Canadas

  1. PierreB says:

    Irony is dead, apparently. The French versioin of “Ô Canada” remains historically whole while the English adaptation is bowdlerized. The English “sons” must be neutered, while the French “aïeux” (in “Terre de nos aïeux”) retains its proud meaning of “male ancestors”. And, of course, the sponsor of the bill to change the wording of the English anthem was a Francophone! I wonder how Quebec would feel about, say, Kelly Leitch proposing changes to “Ô Canada”?
    And all this effort to achieve changes so unnecessary, so picayune, that one has to blush at the results. In any event, once they’ve completed their task, parliamentarians might want to tackle the French anthem, which really could use some updating (“Let an impure blood Soak our fields” anyone?).


    • Well said, Pierre. I read through all the parliamentary debates for Bill C-210 for my upcoming article in the Dorchester Review (to which this blog entry is more like a follow up), and other French-speaking MPs showed the same hypocrisy toward the two O Canadas: they would defend the French O Canada and shield it from all criticism and alteration, but they’re more than happy to alter the lyrics of the English O Canada.


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