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Conservative Senators poised to kill Bélanger’s national anthem bill

By Rachel Aiello      

‘Our job is to take things to a vote,’ says Senate sponsor of C-210 Frances Lankin, an Independent, who accuses Conservative Senators of deliberately adjourning debate and proposing a change to it in hopes the bill will die.

'The Conservative caucus has taken a position that they’re going to do everything they can to prevent a vote on O Canada,' says Independent Senator Frances Lankin, left, sponsor of the bill to make the national anthem gender neutral. An amendment by Conservative Senator Don Plett, right, would, if passed, need to go back to the House, in which the bill now no longer has a sponsor. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright and Cynthia Münster
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Conservative Senators may have found a way to kill the late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger’s private member’s bill proposing to make the lyrics of O Canada gender neutral.

The Senate sponsor of the bill to change the national anthem, Independent Senator Frances Lankin, says the “partisan” moves of a “small group” are usurping the majority’s desire to pass the bill, either by holding it up and not allowing it to get to the third reading vote in the Senate, or, if it does come to a vote, by hoping their new amendment to the bill passes, sending it back to the House.

The bill, C-210, officially known as An Act to Amend the National Anthem Act (gender), proposes changing two words in the English version of O Canada from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”

On May 18, Conservative Senator Don Plett moved an amendment to the bill at third reading, replacing the words “in all of” with the words “thou dost in.”

If the amendment—which would still make the lyric gender neutral—was to pass, the bill would be sent back to the House, where a new sponsor for the bill would be needed, given Mr. Bélanger’s death in August 2016 of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as ALS and Lou Gehrig’s disease).

However, according to House rules, changing the sponsor of a private member’s bill requires unanimous consent, something Sen. Lankin said she believed would be unlikely, given some Conservative MPs’ opposition to any changes to the national anthem. Without a sponsor, the bill would die.

The late Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, pictured right with former Liberal leader Bob Rae, was able to see his bill pass the House before he died last summer. The bill has been in the Senate for almost a year. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

But, it’s possible it wouldn’t have to come to a vote on the amendment at all if the Conservatives continue what they have been doing: constantly adjourning debate at third reading in the Senate. Sen. Lankin said this was in the hope “that if during the summer recess there is a prorogation, the bill dies.”

“The Conservative caucus has taken a position that they’re going to do everything they can to prevent a vote on O Canada,” she said. “This particular small group of people are preventing the majority from deciding…our job is to take things to a vote, and not to, for partisan, and/or personal, and/or ideological reasons, block a vote at all,” said Sen. Lankin. “Enough is enough. I don’t think this is the role of the Senate to prevent a democratic expression on an issue.”

Sen. Plett was not available for an interview, but in a statement his office emailed to The Hill Times he said the rule about changing the House sponsor of a bill “was news to most of us,” and that the proposed amendment was intended as “a compromise, in order to appease those who feel that the current anthem is not gender inclusive.” He said that given the circumstances he believes the House would allow for a sponsor change, and that “for a Senator to suggest that I would purposely take advantage of the death of a former colleague is disheartening.”

In the Senate before introducing the amendment, Sen. Plett told his colleagues that allowing the legislation to pass “would be doing a great disservice to our nation.”

“A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from,” Sen. Plett told the Upper Chamber.

He said in 1908, Judge Robert Stanley Weir released his first draft of the anthem, in which the lyric read:  “True patriot love thou dost in us command.”

Adjournment being used as a ‘tactic to completely stall’ Bill C-210: Sen. Lankin

The bill has been before the Senate for just under a year, in which time it’s been brought up for debate 14 times at second and third reading, and each time adjourned, often on the argument of Conservative Senators saying they want more time to speak to the bill.

On April 11, for instance, Conservative Senator Yonah Martin rose saying “It is my birthday today, and I would ask the chamber to indulge me to the adjournment on this debate at this time,” and debate was adjourned.

The Senate has a longstanding tradition of allowing any Senator who wants to speak to a bill the chance to do so. In this case, Sen. Lankin said that convention is being used as a “tactic to completely stall” Bill C-210.

In her work as the sponsor trying to game out how many Senators wanted to speak to the bill she began hearing from Senators that they needed more time for various reasons, but then other Conservative Senators joined the speaking list without explanation.

“I finally said ‘Come on, what’s going on? Tell me straight up: are you going to allow for a vote on this or not?’ And the answer came back ‘No,’” said Sen. Lankin.

As she explained, the only way out of allowing the debate to adjourn on request of a Conservative Senator would be if the majority of Senators say no, and a vote would be called on adjourning debate. But then, if a Senator didn’t want the vote to come, they could call for adjournment of the Senate itself, which would then set off a second round of vote bells ringing. This back and forth could continue for some time, holding up a number of priority government bills the Senate must still deal with before the end of the sitting. 

Lankin looks to ‘horse-trading’ to save bill

“There isn’t a way out of that, except for a negotiated solution. And at this point in time the Conservative caucus has said they’re not interested in a negotiated solution,” said Sen. Lankin. She’s looking to “horse-trading” as the only possible escape route from the current stalemate, where the Senators who want the national anthem bill to come to a vote could agree to fast-track another bill that the Conservative Senators support, in exchange.

Bill C-210 was passed by the House of Commons by a margin of 225 votes to 74 on June 15, in a concerted push to fast-track it, given Mr. Bélanger’s failing health at the time.

The House Canadian Heritage Committee passed the bill without amendment after hearing from just one witness, despite the objection of the Conservative members on the committee.

Nearly a year ago, last July, Senators told The Hill Times they were confident Canadians would be singing the new gender-neutral version of O Canada before Mr. Bélanger passed away. That did not happen. In the meantime as it’s languished in the Senate, Liberal MP Mona Fortier ran and won in the byelection to take his long-held Ottawa-Vanier, Ont. seat, and the initial sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Conservative Sen. Nancy Ruth, retired.

“Whether the Senate votes yes or no to this bill is not the issue; the issue is: it’s time to vote. I’m ready to vote and a lot of Senators are ready to vote, and a handful of Senators have convinced their caucus to support them in stymieing that effort to get to a vote. I think that’s wrong,” Sen. Lankin said.

Bill C-210 is the 11th private member’s bill to propose gender-neutral language changes to the national anthem, including one from Mr. Bélanger in the previous Parliament. The Senate has introduced two other public bills on the matter.

As well, back in 2010 the Conservative government floated the idea in a Throne Speech but quickly retracted it due to strong opposition amongst its members.


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