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OPINION: National anthem debate drowns out larger concerns about slippage in civics

We are worrying about semantics when our civic literacy itself is on the decline. Rather than whether the national anthem is gender-neutral, we should be much more worried whether our young people know the words to O Canada or whether they literally stand on guard for the song.
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The Canadian flag is reflected in the glass of an office tower on the Halifax waterfront. (William B. Grice / Wikimedia Commons)

By JOSEPH QUESNEL

ANTIGONISH — Controversy arose recently in Ontario when it was revealed the ministry of education was considering making civics an optional course for students.

Many Ontarians and residents of other provinces decried the proposed change as a move away from civic and citizenship literacy.

Promoting engaged and informed citizenship is a battle Canadian conservatives should be fighting. In fact, all parties should be promoting civic engagement.

The only real civic battle we have had in recent memory was the battle over our national anthem. One Liberal MP's private member's bill proposed to change two words in the English version of O Canada from "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command." The bill cleared the House of Commons and is now before the Senate.

The change created some legislative pushback from the Conservative opposition. Arguments about history and heritage were thrown back and forth.

Excuse the cliché, but it seems that some of these Conservative MPs are missing the forest for the trees. We are worrying about semantics when our civic literacy itself is on the decline.

Rather than whether the song is gender-neutral, we should be much more worried whether our young people know the words to O Canada or whether they literally stand on guard for the song.

On balance, the song should speak to 21st century values of gender equality, although there is reason to worry whether this change opens the debate to unreasonable changes. Our majority Christian population might have problems with removing God from the anthem, or Canadians in general might have no problem with mentioning "our home and native land" because they are interpreting the term correctly, as opposed to some indigenous activists. One change does not have to become a slippery slope if we do not allow it.

We should be worried when one hears in the news that schools have cut the national anthem out of their morning rituals or no longer stand for the anthem. Inculcating civic and national pride is worth fighting for. In 2009, a principal at a New Brunswick elementary school ended the practice of singing the national anthem after receiving a few complaints from parents. After Conservative MPs took up the cause, the anthem became mandatory in New Brunswick schools.

As Conservatives debate their future leadership, they should champion a vision of engaged citizenship. We should not be afraid to discuss what brings us together, but not necessarily to the extent of "tests." Fighting over O Canada lyrics is just a sideshow. It misses the much more critical debate over the decline of civic engagement and common bonds. It bears mentioning that true conservatism is not reactionary; it is about thoughtful reform and change.

Modern conservatism has become focused disproportionately on economics. Tax cuts and efficient state spending are very important, but not the only relevant considerations when assessing the direction of our society. The Aristotelian ideal of citizenship is a definition of the human being as an active, moral and political being, not just homo economicus.

The focus on Canadians as taxpayers and consumers ignores our civic and moral bonds to each other. We are so focused on creating a workforce that we neglect what kind of a society we are trying to build. As Conservatives move away from issues-based social conservatism, they should instead embrace a civic republican conception of citizenship that stresses a common good through common political participation.

Such a conception dares to move beyond tolerance and acceptance to outright citizen solidarity. But this solidarity does not deny our diverse heterogeneous communities. It also must include a common civic language, complete with some common values, common histories, and common rituals, such as the national anthem and other national symbols.

Promoting mandatory history and civics education courses across Canada are causes worth fighting for. Making sure all Canadians know and understand our national anthem is also a worthy cause.

When we seek causes to fight for, we need to look for the deeper issues, rather than attractive political theatre.

Joseph Quesnel is a Nova Scotia-based policy analyst and commentator. He is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, a research associate with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) and aboriginal contributor at Troy Media.

 



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