Tories block bid to ensure dying MP sees gender neutral ‘O Canada’ bill passed

Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Belanger, who lives with ALS (also known as Lou Gherig's disease) gives the thumbs up as he receives applause after using a tablet with text-to-speech program to defend his proposed changes to neutralize gender in the lyrics to "O Canada" in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Conservative MPs have thwarted a bid to ensure that dying Liberal MP Mauril Belanger gets to realize his dream of a gender-neutral national anthem.

Fellow Liberals, with the help of New Democrats, tried two procedural manoeuvres Friday to expedite passage of Belanger’s private member’s bill, which would change the second line of O Canada from, “true patriot love, in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

But Tory MPs blocked both.

They put up enough speakers to fill the first hour of allotted debate on the bill, rather than let the debate run out and thereby force a second reading vote next week.

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Liberal MP Greg Fergus sought unanimous consent to continue the debate for another hour — which would have had the same effect of forcing a vote next week — but Conservative MPs refused to give it.

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As a result, the bill is unlikely to be debated again or put to a vote before the fall, although there are still some procedural manoeuvres that could be tried to speed things up.

With overwhelming support from Liberals and New Democrats, Fergus said the Conservatives are simply delaying the inevitable. Belanger’s bill, or another just like it, will eventually pass and the only thing the Tories blocked Friday was an attempt to ensure that it happens “while Mauril is able to enjoy it.”

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Tory MP Andrew Scheer denied the Conservatives tried to hold up the bill, saying they treated it the same way as they would any other private member’s bill.

“I think it’s an unfair characterization to say blocked, there’s a normal process that these private member’s bills follow,” Scheer said in a phone interview.

“There was nothing unusual about the way this bill was treated.”

Scheer, a former House of Commons Speaker, accused the Liberals of using Belanger’s illness to politicize a bill that proposes a change that would concern many Canadians.

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“It really does seem unfortunate that some people are trying to play politics about this because we’re dealing with someone with a very tragic situation,” said Scheer, who opposes the bill.

“This is a bill that actually changes something very important to… most Canadians and if members want to speak to it, they have the right to do that.”

Belanger has deteriorated quickly since he was first diagnosed last November with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — an incurable, fatal neurodegenerative disease, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He showed up in the Commons on Friday in a wheelchair to launch second reading debate of his bill. He looked noticeably thinner. His collar was loosened to accommodate a tube that’s been inserted in his trachea to help him breath and keep his lungs clear of fluid. He spoke briefly, using a tablet computer that converts text into computerized speech.

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Belanger argued that his proposed change to two words in the English lyrics of O Canada would actually return the anthem closer to the original “thou dost in us command” — wording that was changed to “all thy sons” in 1913, presumably to honour men in the armed forces at the approach to World War I.

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Since then, he said, women have won the right to vote, to run for office and to die in combat as members of the military.

“Our anthem should not ignore the increasingly important contribution of 52 per cent of our population,” he said.

Belanger, who received a standing ovation, was the only Liberal to speak during the debate. The NDP similarly put up only one speaker, Sheila Malcomson, who said every New Democrat she knows is proud to support Belanger’s bill.

However, the Conservatives filled the remaining debate time with speaker after speaker opposed to the bill, although each prefaced their remarks with praise for Belanger’s courage and determination.

“Rewriting the lyrics of our national anthem in the name of political correctness goes too far,” said Manitoba Tory Larry Maguire.

He suggested passing Belanger’s bill would set a precedent that could to lead to dropping the anthem’s reference to God “so that Canadians who are agnostic and atheist feel included.” Or it could spark changes to other national symbols, such as replacing the beaver with a “less destructive” national animal.

Other Conservatives argued that their constituents don’t want to change O Canada, noting that their own government proposed a gender neutral anthem in 2010 but had to back down in the face of a public backlash.


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