National Anthem Act

Madam Speaker, speaking to the private member’s bill, I think all members in the House are thinking of the member in question, our friend, the member for Ottawa—Vanier, who has brought this issue to the national consciousness on a couple of occasions, and cannot participate in a debate that he has helped to create. However, regardless of what side of the debate one is on or the issues raised in it, every member of this place, of Parliament, and here in the nation’s capital, hold our colleague and friend in tremendously high regard. Our thoughts are with him in this debate.

I think of my short time as minister of veterans affairs. During the election, we had Victory over Japan Day, Victory in the Pacific, and the 70th anniversary of that important milestone. There is tradition that when an important commemoration event happens during an election, the minister will do the event but will invite other parties to be represented. I spent a day with my friend, the MP for Ottawa—Vanier, who was then a candidate. I fully expected him just to come to the cenotaph and do a speech after I did, meet with a few of the veterans, and then go back to his campaigning. He spent the entire day, right through to the dinner, thanking our veterans. We had Battle of Hong Kong veterans who had been prisoners of war, in ill health, and in their nineties. We had other veterans from the Pacific theatre. The member spent the entire day with them. He did not go back.

I think of that moment often, because at the end of the day he said he was really tired in the campaign, that it was wearing him down. Months later, when he shared his news with the House, I thought back to that moment and how he was probably not feeling his best but did not sacrifice a minute away from thanking our veterans. I will cherish that memory with my friend from Ottawa—Vanier.

Starting out with that remembrance of my friend, what is special about this place is that we can be friends and not necessarily agree on the debate he has brought here. However, as a parliamentarian, he has raised this issue. What I think is best served by the debate today is the fact that we are showing that Canada is not the country of 1880, when O Canada was first composed by an order of the lieutenant governor of Quebec for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Anyone who follows that national celebration in Quebec might find some irony in the fact that our national anthem had its origin as a song for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec.

These national songs, symbols, and issues are rooted in the time of our early country. When we look at some of them now, we can be very proud of the country that the men and women who built this place created. Therefore, while the words and the passions and the emotions of our early years as a young confederation can be looked back to, we should also respect the symbol’s heritage heraldry from that time. That is why we bring to the debate that all members of the chamber promote fully the inclusion of all Canadians and the wonderful opportunity that our country represents. Our country is as free as it is because of equality between men and women.

There is irony, in that when the song was composed it was at a time when women could not sit in this place, yet a century later we are debating whether the words chosen at that time should be changed. That in itself highlights the fact that we have come a long way as a country. We still have a tremendous way to go, particularly with equality on corporate boards and on a number of issues that our past government looked at and the present government is looking at as well.

It is wrong for a country to tread on its heritage and history, even when some of those heritage symbols, songs, and anthems may seem a little dated when looking at it through the lens of 2016. That is really what we have come to with a debate about our national anthem.

We are not debating composing that anthem today. We are celebrating the country that chose this anthem generations ago. It is much like the mace I am staring at. It is not a weapon that is used on the field of battle today, but when the first parliaments were formed in Britain, it was a symbol that the weapon was being placed on the table and that sides could debate in a democracy.

Do we discard our ties to the past, or do we learn by looking back at them? That is essentially the debate my friend from Ottawa—Vanier has brought to us. We look at how we would craft a national anthem today. Whether in French or English, they were both written as a young country emerged a few years past 1812, before the Great War. Both the French and English versions of O Canada are deeply military in symbolism, whether it is sword, stand on guard, or true patriot love. These stir emotions, and they were meant to in a young country.

As someone who joined the Canadian Armed Forces at age 18, I heard that anthem played at my ceremony and my oath to Her Majesty the Queen, which some may feel is old fashioned. These are the ties I have to the same institution of the Canadian Armed Forces as my grandfather and, indeed, many of our great-grandfathers had.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, we should look back and recognize that our country has come a long way. What is interesting is that, when I took my oath to join the Canadian Armed Forces, I stood proudly alongside some tremendous female leaders who were leaving their high schools across the country and stepping up to serve their country.

Anthems, symbols, heraldry, and heritage are the connections we have to the past. We can learn now by looking at them, but we should be very reticent to change them, because they are part of our history. It is critical for us to learn from that history, but changing things to suit today, with respect to some of the early symbols of this country, is not a way we can show we have evolved.

We show we evolve by looking back and saying that at that time women did not have the vote. Thankfully, that has changed. Our country has modernized, but we still have the tie to these important rallying points for an early and young country that was emerging to the north of its great southern rival.

In our debate here today, all MPs certainly want all Canadians to feel a part of the Canadian story, the celebration that is represented by our national anthem, by our flag, by the military colours of units, by badges, and by crests. These all have origins in the early days of our nation, but we should not substitute them in each generation. We should look back and see how our society might have changed.

This is a good debate if we can look at it from that perspective, if we can look back and say we take pride in our anthem and all it represents. We take pride in the symbols in this Parliament, in this very chamber; for example, our coats of arms. Countries do not change or alter these without considerable need for consideration.

In this case, we have a situation where, if we start parsing lines of songs, we are not showing respect for the tradition and the heritage we have inherited. This in no way suggests that sticking to a historic root of a song means that one is not in favour of equality. I worry when people make that argument.

I know that, listening to my constituents, as many of my colleagues have, and certainly considering the origins of the song, we can stay with it.

However, I thank my friend from Ottawa—Vanier for bringing this to the floor of the House.

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