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Politics Tory amendment would quash effort to make O Canada gender-neutral, senator warns

Senator Don Plett arrives at the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Nov. 4, 2013.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A Conservative senator who does not agree with attempts by a now deceased Liberal MP to make the national anthem gender-neutral is proposing different changes to the lyrics of O Canada that would, at first blush, accomplish the same thing.

But Frances Lankin, the independent senator who is the sponsor of the bill in the Red Chamber, says the actual effect of the amendment tabled by Don Plett, a Tory senator from Manitoba, would be to kill Mauril Bélanger's legislation and leave the anthem unchanged.

Mr. Bélanger, who died last August of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) after more than two decades as an MP, made it his last act as a politician to draft legislation that would change the anthem's words "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command."

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Many Conservative MPs opposed the revision and, in the weeks before Mr. Bélanger died, they refused to give the unanimous consent that was required in the House of Commons to allow another MP to shepherd the bill through Parliament in the event of his death.

In the end, that change of hands was not required because the bill was passed in the House while Mr. Bélanger was still alive. But, since June of last year, it has languished in the Senate where those who oppose it have managed to defer the final vote.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Plett, who told his fellow senators that changing O Canada 's lyrics would "be doing a great disservice to our nation" and that "a national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically," proposed his own alteration.

Rather than "in all of us command," Mr. Plett tabled an amendment that would change the lyrics to "thou dost in us command." Those were the words the anthem's composer, Judge Robert Stanley Weir, used in a 1908 draft of the song.

If the anthem must be revised to become gender-neutral, said Mr. Plett, it should at least respect "the memory of Judge Weir and the integrity of his work."

Ms. Lankin said on Wednesday that "thou dost in us command" might seem like a reasonable choice. "I like the heritage language of the anthem," she said, "and that it is something that I could personally support."

But, when she looked into what would happen to the bill if it was amended, she was told it would have to go back to the House of Commons where it would need a sponsor. And the Conservatives in the House have already demonstrated that they are unwilling to give the unanimous consent required to allow the bill to change from one set of hands to another.

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So Ms. Lankin is warning senators who may see Mr. Plett's amendment as a bow to tradition that accomplishes Mr. Bélanger's objective, that voting in favour will be the end of the legislation.

And even if the amendment is defeated, said Ms. Lankin, Conservative senators have made it clear they will use the available tactics to prevent a final vote on the bill.

"My position on this, and many other senators agree, is that it is not our job in the Senate to block votes on things," Ms. Lankin said. "Our job, when a bill comes to us from the House of Commons, is to review it, to deliberate on the bill and to decide – to decide yes or decide no, but take a vote."

For his part, Mr. Plett said he was unaware that it would take unanimous consent of MPs to have the bill change hands in the House of Commons.

"The amendment was to serve as a compromise, in order to appease those who feel that the current anthem is not gender-inclusive," he said in a statement. "Given the circumstances, I have every reason to believe that the House of Commons would allow for a change in sponsorship. For a senator to suggest that I would purposely take advantage of the death of a former colleague is disheartening."

But Catherine Bélanger, Mr. Bélanger's widow, said it is clear that Mr. Plett has found a "really sneaky way" to kill the bill.

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Mr. Bélanger "championed this because he believed to include women. It was to be all inclusive," said Ms. Bélanger. "For him, it was very important for him to recognize everybody in the country."

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