Skip to main content
A scary good deal on trusted journalism
Get full digital access to globeandmail.com
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks SAVE OVER $140
OFFER ENDS OCTOBER 31
A scary good deal on trusted journalism
$0.99
per week
for 24 weeks
SAVE OVER $140
OFFER ENDS OCTOBER 31
// //

Sandford Borins is professor of public management emeritus at the University of Toronto. His blog is at sandfordborins.com.

On Jan. 1, Australia – a country whose history and governance have great similarities to our own – revised its national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The phrase “young and free” was updated to “one and free” to acknowledge the presence of First Nations and the land’s history prior to the arrival of the first European settlers.

Like Australia’s anthem, the English lyrics of O Canada have evolved to reflect contemporary attitudes. When O Canada was adopted by Parliament as the national anthem in 1967, one of the “we stand on guard” phrases in the original 1908 version was replaced with “from far and wide,” to reflect our vast geography and the increasing diversity of our population. In 2018, Parliament enacted a law changing the line in the English version “true patriot love in all thy sons command” to “true patriot love in all of us command,” to render it gender-neutral and therefore inclusive of half of our population.

Story continues below advertisement

In my view, the French and bilingual lyrics of O Canada now need revision. The bilingual version uses two lines from the French version. First, “ton histoire est une épopée des plus brillants exploits,” officially translated as “your history is an epic of brilliant deeds.” I embrace this line as an eloquent evocation of the best moments of our history and an aspirational goal for the future.

The second line, however, gives me pause: “car ton bras sait porter l’épée, il sait porter la croix,” translated as “for your [Canada’s] arm knows how to wield the sword, your arm knows how to carry the cross.” These words, of course, reflect the importance of the Catholic church in 19th century Quebec, the context in which O Canada was written. But to me, as a Jew, they now sound non-inclusive and obsolete.

The 2011 census, the most recent to ask about religion, reported that 67 per cent of Canadians identified as Christian, 9 per cent as other religions (Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, etc.) and 24 per cent gave no religious affiliation. Is it appropriate to include in the national anthem a religious symbol with which a third of our population (and possibly more in the coming 2021 census) does not identify?

Some religious and ethnic groups – Jews, Muslims, First Nations and Black people – have deeply unsettling historical memories of Christians carrying crosses, evoking recollections of their ancestors being victimized through conquest, forced conversion, or pogroms and violence.

Consider Quebec, the province in which O Canada was written and where it was first sung. In 2019, Quebec’s Laicity Act banned the wearing of religious symbols, including the cross, by public servants. Simultaneously with the proclamation of the Laicity Act, the Quebec National Assembly removed the cross that had hung there since 1936. If the Government of Quebec has taken these two dramatic steps to remove this symbol of Christianity from public life, then it would be consistent for it to advocate its removal from the national anthem.

My argument, addressed to all Canadians, but particularly to francophones, is that a reference to a religious symbol with which a substantial minority of Canadians do not identify, and which some in that minority find aversive, is no longer appropriate within a national anthem that we have continually revised to be inclusive for all Canadians.

If “la croix” were to be removed from the French version of O Canada, what would replace it? Here is a simple and inclusive replacement that contains two syllables and rhymes with “exploits.” It is “nos fois,” or “our faiths or beliefs.” The revised phrase of the French version would translate as “your arm knows how to wield the sword, your arm knows how to carry our faiths.” This revision would mean that our country knows how to respect or support the faiths or beliefs of all Canadians. It would apply to the faiths of those who affiliate with organized religions and the beliefs of those who don’t. I invite other readers to come up with alternative inclusive revisions.

Story continues below advertisement

The time has come for another revision to O Canada that eliminates the exclusivity of a reference to one religion’s symbol and replaces it with a more inclusive reference to religiosity or personal belief.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies