What was he thinking? - National anthem idea was Harper's alone

PM was behind the decision to insert lyrics-change proposal in throne speech

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Our government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem."

- Speech from the throne, March 3

"The government will not proceed any further to change our national anthem. We have offered to hear from Canadians on this issue and they have already spoken loud and clear. They overwhelmingly do not want to open the issue."

-Dimitri Soudas, prime minister's press secretary, March 5

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Never mind. In the annals of humiliating climb-downs, this one is exceptional. Throne speeches are supposed to be vision statements, not trial balloons.

The questions are: What were they thinking; whose idea was it; and how did the reference to the national anthem get into the throne speech in the first place?

It was a single sentence tacked on to the end of a long paragraph on upcoming national anniversaries - the 400th anniversary of the founding of Cupids, Newfoundland; the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812; the 60th anniversary of the queen's accession to the throne.

And then, out of nowhere, rewriting the anthem, or rather restoring Stanley Weir's original English 1908 lyric, "thou dost in us command," in place of "in all thy sons command," a 1913 rewrite.

And this, three days after Canadians had been listening to, and singing, O Canada as never before - 14 times to be precise, at gold medal ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics.

This immediately became the storyline out of the speech, with screaming Page One headlines. Canadians might not have a view on the government's economic action plan, but they certainly have an opinion on O Canada.

The government thus stepped on its budget message for the next day.

So, who was vetting the throne speech, and who was writing inserts that no one outside the Prime Minister's Office saw?

Certainly not the cabinet, whose members saw the throne speech for the first time only an hour before it was delivered. And not the Conservative caucus, which had no idea of the O Canada rewrite, and was left to deal with furious blowback from the Conservative base in English-speaking Canada.

Only two people in the PMO could have written something like that into the speech without cabinet approval - Stephen Harper and his chief of staff, Guy Giorno. Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, a strong feminist, has lobbied the PM on this matter, and you can put it down as her idea. But she wouldn't have had the slightest idea of who was approving the throne speech.

In normal governments, a throne speech is written at the PM's office, but approved by either full cabinet or the cabinet committee on priorities and planning. This one came from the Langevin Block, with no quality control or fail-safe mechanisms to protect the prime minister or his office from this kind of brain cramp.

It's not as if the lyrics of O Canada haven't been revised before. In 1980, when it officially became the national anthem on the 100th anniversary of its being commissioned, the Trudeau government brought the Almighty into it by replacing "O Canada, glorious and free," with "God keep our land, glorious and free." No one would try that today in the secular city.

Calixa Lavallée's musical composition was first played on St. Jean Baptiste Day in 1880 at, of all places, the Plains of Abraham. Adolph Basile Routhier's French lyrics were actually commissioned as a patriotic poem by the Société St. Jean Baptiste, and have never been revised.

It was an interesting choice that the branding statements of the Vancouver Games - "With Glowing Hearts" and "De plus brilliants exploits," both came from the national anthem.

It turned out to be an inspired choice for Vancouver. For Harper, messing with the English lyrics, even with the worthy intentions of promoting gender neutrality, proved to be the clunker of the year.

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