09:06:37 pm on
Thursday 28 May 2020

Revising Oh Canada
David Simmonds

Oh Canada Our home and native land
True patriot love

In all of us command

With glowing hearts we see thee rise 
The true north strong and free 
From far and wide oh Canada 
We stand on guard for thee 
God keep our land 
Glorious and free
On Canada we stand on guard for thee 
Oh Canada we stand on guard for thee

I may be hastening the end of my career as a columnist, but I have to say Oh Canada is a weak national anthem.  Let me be specific.  I like the tune, which was well written before words were set to it, but I dislike the lyric. Assuming we can’t revert to a status quo ante in which our national anthem is just a tune, without words, I think the tune could use some new words.

Let me state off the top that I’m not in the camp that thinks national anthems are jingoistic or out of place in a world full of world-wide problems. After all, where would hockey games be without an anthem? Singing a national anthem, with people you don’t know, is a bonding and community-building experience. Thus, an effort to suggest improvement is justifiable.  

I’ll get straight away to what I don’t like about the words. The most egregious fault is in the second line; “our home and native land.”  The referent to “native” insults Canada’s indigenous people as well as those that immigrated to Canada from other native lands and make up an increasing proportion of the population.

What of “standing on guard,” which is mentioned three times. Do we want to be a country known for its dedication to keeping a watch out for its enemies? Plus, the antiquated word “thee” gets four mentions: four too many.   

A national anthem is supposed to bring people together, inspire them and express pride. If I were redesigning the national anthem, I would use words that looked both to the past and to the future, acknowledged the contribution of those who have built this country and expressed optimism about contributions to come.  I would also try to come up with some wording that reflected our responsibility as a fortunate citizenry, of Canada, a country of the world.

There are some things worth saving in the current iteration, of the Canadian national anthem.  “The true north strong and free” says it all. “With glowing hearts” is a decent phrase.  To call Canada “glorious” is an apt description.

None of my criticisms are freshly minted; for example, the “native land” issue was formally raised by Toronto City Council back in 1990. Still, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to revive the issue and, if I can’t keep the one about overindulgence, at least I can keep this one.

Tradition should be respected and given the benefit of the doubt; sometimes anachronisms, such as the words to a song, are best swallowed whole to preserve that tradition.  The Star Spangled Banner is as good example; changing its blood soaked words is politically unimaginable. Oh Canada only became our official national anthem in 1980.

The politicians have already had a go at changing the words, with the passage of changes, by the late Mauril Belanger, in a 2018 Bill; the phrase, “all thy sons,” morphed to “all of us.” Even that battle, over a relatively innocuous change, was fiercely fought. I am under no illusions about the likelihood of a change. 
I realise it is easy to criticise without being constructive, so I offer up below my own work in process version of a rewrite.  I invite you to improve on it.  How to balance the French and English split lyric and what form the French version should take, is an issue for another day. You might also notice that God didn’t make it into my version.  I could be persuaded to put her back in another draft. Thus,

Oh Canada
The true north strong and free

One glorious land 
From sea to sea to sea

With glowing hearts, we offer thanks
To those who came before

And pledge to build for those to come
A nation that endures
Our maple leaf
Proudly unfurled
Leads us to work towards a better world
Leads us to work towards a better world

There, I’ve it off my chest. One resolution kept.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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