Mr. Speaker, this bill has afforded us an opportunity to reflect on a number of questions.
The first is a question of ownership. To whom do our national symbols and icons belong? Do they belong to Canadians, as an expression of their heritage and popular will or do those symbols belong to politicians, for us to impose our world view on Canadians?
The second is a question of legitimacy and respect for Canadians. Do they have a place in any discussion about the symbols that are part of our shared heritage?
Where I stand on this is clear. Our symbols, like the national anthem, belong to Canadians. They do not belong to us as politicians. We may have a role to play to lead the discussion, but these symbols are not our playthings.
Traditionally, our symbols come from Canadians, from the people. The maple leaf and the beaver were symbols of this country long before politicians chose to put their legal imprint on them. Lacrosse and hockey were our national sports well before this House of Commons decided to pass a resolution or a motion to say they were. Of course, the national anthem had gained popular favour well before the politicians finally got around to making it official in 1980. That is why the second question, that of legitimacy in our actions, depends on allowing Canadians the control and the primary place in any discussion about their symbols. If a change in the national anthem is what Canadians want, that will be demonstrated by them clearly through a robust public discussion. However, no such robust public discussion has taken place here.
Instead, the Liberal Party has gone to great lengths to shut Canadians out of this discussion, particularly at the committee stage. In fact, only one member of the Canadian public, one person out of 36 million, was allowed the opportunity to participate in this debate, and even his dissent was suppressed prematurely. In the haste to ram this bill through committee, the people being shut out of the debate are the people of Canada, to whom this anthem belongs.
This week in the House we heard these words, “On our side of the House, it is all about listening to and respecting Canadians”.
Those words were spoken this past Tuesday, in this House, by the Liberal leader, but they were not spoken with respect to this bill. Rather, the way in which this bill has been rammed through committee by the Liberal Party demonstrates how empty that declaration is. Listening to and respecting Canadians has not happened here.
In their haste to jam this bill through, the Liberals on the heritage committee broke the rules no less than four times. Breaking the rules was the means to achieve the objective of blocking Canadians from making their views on the national anthem heard.
The rules for private members' bills provide 60 sitting days to consider a bill, including hearing witnesses. This can be extended by another 30 days. In this particular case, the Liberals allowed the bill to be at committee for only one meeting, which began only 14 hours after the bill was voted on at second reading in the House.
The Liberals even attempted to expressly block any and all witnesses. When the law clerks indicated that this could not be done, they conceded a brief one hour for witnesses. Needless to say, Canadians were given no opportunity or invitation to make their voices heard. The process was about suppressing not only dissenting views but any discussion at all. Some potential witnesses had indicated a desire to have their views heard. However, with only hours' notice, not surprisingly, they could not make it to Ottawa to do so.
One such witness was Stephen W. Simpson, the grandson of Robert Stanley Weir, the original composer of the English version of O Canada. Mr. Simpson's contribution to the study of the bill would have been valuable. However, his spouse was ill in hospital, which prevented him from appearing before the committee on only hours' notice. The Liberal members determined that he would not be accommodated, despite his personal circumstances.
The one witness who was able to scramble to appear before committee, the very knowledgeable and capable historian Dr. Chris Champion, was scheduled to address the committee and answer questions for one hour. In a stunning display of contempt for any dissent, his evidence was shut down prematurely by a Liberal motion to stop hearing evidence just two-thirds of the way through his allotted time. Even that had to be shut down.
However, in his evidence he did have an opportunity to comment on the process. He said:
I think what is happening here is quick and dirty. How many Canadians really know it's happening is, I think, a legitimate question. It's going through so precipitately that I doubt very many people are aware of or really understand the change.
“On our side of the House, it is all about listening to and respecting Canadians”, so proclaimed the Liberal leader. These are such hollow words.
Ultimately the voices of many who wished to speak to this bill were not heard, and they were effectively told that their voices did not matter.
Although this may seem to some to be a simple matter of procedure or formality, the fact remains that this is the national anthem of all Canadians. Despite the actions of those who would say otherwise, the voices of the overwhelming majority of Canadians who do not support this change do matter. If this were not the case, if there were indeed an overwhelming majority in favour, proponents of the change would have nothing to fear from a robust public discussion. It did not happen.
Even now, most Canadians would be unaware that Parliament is even debating changing the national anthem. For those who are aware, many are incredulous that such a change could even be considered. However, their voices have not been given any consideration.
Many in this House will know that in 2010, I was part of a Conservative government that proposed to change the national anthem to the original lyrics “thou dost in us command”. I was originally in favour of this proposition, believing that it would be appropriate in an effort to restore it to its historical tradition.
That proposal was made as it should have been, in a very public, very high-profile manner, through the Speech from the Throne, which signalled to Canadians that such a change was being considered. In doing so, we provided Canadians with the opportunity to respond to this proposal in a manner that allowed their voices to be heard. They were engaged, involved, and consulted on an issue that was important to them.
Respond they did. The ensuing negative response to the proposal was overwhelming. Canadians from all across the country, of all different political stripes, made it very clear that they were against changing the national anthem. Therefore, it was not changed, for it would not be appropriate for Parliament to take a national symbol, an integral aspect of the shared identity of Canadians, and change it without consideration for the very Canadians to whom that anthem belongs.
The exercise, that experience of listening to Canadians, obviously profoundly affected my view of the issue and how we should deal with it as political leaders.
How many today can honestly say that they have had an opportunity to consult broadly with their constituents on this issue?
On July 1, members of this House will attend celebrations commemorating the Confederation of Canada. When it comes time to sing the national anthem, how many communities will turn to their representative in Parliament and say, “Why was this changed? Why were we not consulted? Why did nobody tell us?”
Even more will simply go on and sing the anthem as they have always done, for their pride in their country and its symbols is not affected by a top-down order from politicians. Most will sing the old words simply because nobody ever told them that a change was in the works.
This House has an obligation to act with legitimacy and integrity. The manner in which this bill was rammed through committee, with the rules that exist to protect debate trampled, lacked legitimacy.
We have a great responsibility to represent Canadians appropriately. While it may be within our powers to modify the anthem as we see fit, we should refrain from doing so indiscriminately, especially if the proposed change is not supported or endorsed by Canadians. The national anthem is not some malleable plaything for politicians. It belongs to all Canadians, not just the politicians.
Let me take this opportunity to give voice to just a few of those Canadians who had their voices shut out.
Janet said, “I think our national anthem should be understood in historical context and allow the artist's words to stay.”
Phyl said, “Leave it as it is. Once changes are made, they never stop and you can never please all.”
Assam said, “The Canadian National Anthem O Canada should not be changed or altered in any way. It is a part of our history and our history should not be changed.”
Those are views that matter, whether members agree or disagree. When it comes to national symbols, when it comes to the things that make us what we are, historically we have taken them from the people, not given them to the people. At the very least, if we seek to change that which the people have given us, we deserve to hear from those people and not lock them out of that discussion. That is what has happened in the process with this bill.