The women who fought for 40 years to change one word

Former Canadian Senators Nancy Ruth and Vivienne Poy – instrumental in making O Canada gender neutral. Credit: Neville Poy

This week, Canada changed the English version of its national anthem to include women as well as men.

“About bloody time!” is the correct response – people have been calling for this since 1980.

To get the full story of the women (and one man) who campaigned for the change for so long, head over to the BBC where I’ve written a *longggg* feature on it.

I’m especially pleased to have had a chance to write about Nancy Ruth (pictured above), a former senator who probably put more energy, money and effort into the campaign than anyone else.

Once on holiday I  met one of Nancy Ruth’s Conservative Party colleagues and mentioned her campaign. His reply? “She’s a lesbian, not a Conservative, and we’re never changing the anthem.”

I’ve never forgotten that, obviously, and it’s a shame I couldn’t put it in the piece (no recording) as it says everything about why it took so long.

Canada’s never going to change its anthem to include women, is it?

“We may not be in our anthem, but we will still paint the Maple Leaf all over us!”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that for almost four years, I’ve been writing about Canadian politicians’ attempts to change just two words of their national anthem so it includes women. A line about “in all our sons” was going to become “in all of us.”

Here’s a story from 2013 about it. And here’s one from 2016. And here’s one from earlier this year if you haven’t had enough! I’ve written God knows how many newspaper articles about the row too.

The change was meant to finally be agreed in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary this month. But has it happened? Has it f**k!

According to this great article in The National Post: “Senators who disagree with the [bill to change the anthem] are not only moving amendments that have no hope of being approved, but are also moving sub-amendments and calling adjournment votes to delay proceedings.

“Last week, Conservative Senator Tobias Enverga moved an amendment to instead change the words in question to ‘in all of our command,’ on the dubious basis that this wording was grammatically superior to [the proposal], and that the word ‘us’ is divisive.

“Any amendments brought forward could essentially kill the legislation.”


This whole charade really is the perfect example of how much anthems stir up nationalist feelings, and how some people will never let traditions be changed – even by two words. It really does show both anthems’ importance and their absurdity.

Don’t expect the proposal to disappear, though. This is the tenth time Canadian politicians have tried to make the change since 1980. Another attempt will be along soon enough.

When will Canada change its national anthem to include women?

I wrote this for The Guardian almost a month ago, and it still hasn’t happened. Get a move on, guys!

Canada – don’t let your women down!

A Canadian woman with a flag. What's not to like?!?

I’ve written a lot on here about the many Canadians who’ve been trying to change their anthem so it mentions the country’s women as well as its men.

Well, the great news is it finally looks like a change might happen thanks to an MP called Mauril Bélanger. Here’s a piece I wrote about it for The Guardian this week.

I also suggest you go here to see a clip of Bélanger introducing the bill. Why? Because Bélanger has ALS and can hardly speak anymore. He introduced it using an iPad speech app and it’s pretty wonderful.

The world’s stupidest police investigation, aka What the hell’s happening in Lithuania?

Last summer, in a dank underground car park in the middle of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, three women staged an art performance.

It ended with them singing their country’s national anthem with a couple of changes: the word “fatherland” becoming “motherland”, a line praising the country’s “sons”  turned around to praise its “daughters”.

As a feminist protest, it was a world away from Pussy Riot, and it received little more than polite applause at the time.

But this year, a far-right group stumbled across a YouTube video of the performance  and complained to the police. And now – madly, unbelievably – the three women are being investigated for “desecrating state symbols”. They face a maximum two years prison.

This is in a country that belongs to the EU. This is in a country with a female president.

“It’s absurd,” Aira Leonidovna, 25, says by email, somewhat understating the situation. “I wanted to show our anthem does not mention women, and it’s evidence our traditions are still misogynistic in a way. But it’s clear ultra-patriots here want to censor us.

“It seems strange that the anthem’s protected by law. It’s like it’s a six-year-old girl who’s so sensitive one word can insult her.”

Aira and her friends have been made to give statements to the police and told to get a lawyer. The person prosecuting them is also trying to get Lithuania’s Language Commission involved – an official body that can apparently confirm whether changing a few words in the anthem is a crime.

I mentioned the case to Canadian senator Nancy Ruth recently. She’s the politician behind an ongoing campaign to get women mentioned in Canada’s national anthem. She couldn’t believe a modern country would carry out an investigation like this. I mentioned Lithuanian’s president was a woman. “It’s not just genitalia that defines how people think unfortunately,” she said.

I’m hoping Nancy gets involved next time Canada has trade talks with Lithuanian. Although if anyone reading this has influence in the country, please sort it out!

You can read more about Aira and her motivations for the performance here at Open Democracy. I expect I’ll be writing more about it here soon enough though!

Margaret Atwood: don’t just change two words of O Canada; rewrite the whole bloody thing!

Copyright: Margaret Atwood

Copyright: Margaret Atwood

This week, Margaret Atwood became the biggest name to back a campaign calling for Canada’s national anthem to be made gender neutral.

She wants just two words of O Canada changed: to stop people singing, “True patriot love in all thy sons command”, and instead belt out “in all of us command”.

It’s an obvious and good thing to do, right? Er, apparently not. According to a worryingly large number of commentators, changing anything in the anthem would be worse than Québec becoming independent.

Just take this op-ed piece as an example. Apparently more men have died fighting for Canada than women, so, y’know, women can’t really say they’ve expressed “true patriot love” yet. Er, what?

I’d like to say the change will happen. Traditionalists should back it: the original English version of the anthem didn’t single out men, and nor does the French version. A change would also bring Canada in line with other countries. Last year, Austria changed its anthem to mention “daughters” as well as  “sons”.

Unfortunately, Canada seems a stubborn place – people have been calling for this change for over 20 years without success – so please, if you are Canadian, head to the campaign’s website and use it to harass your local politicians into supporting it.

When you’ve finished with that, could you also harass Margaret Atwood and get her to write an entirely new anthem?

This is the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin we’re talking about. Imagine – just imagine! – what she could do if she gave it a go. Canada could end up with the world’s first dystopian anthem, or the first from a woman’s point of view. She might even get experimental and write an anthem featuring an anthem within an anthem within an anthem!

Ok, that might be pushing it, but surely she’d be able to conjure a few sentences that better express the love of Canadians for their country than, “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. God keep our land glorious and free!”

Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe simplicity is all that’s needed rather than originality. Whatever, I’m off to harass David Mitchell to rewrite God Save the Queen.