I consider myself to be well left of centre politically, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the extent to which the government imposes decisions and restrictions on us, supposedly for our own good.  I think that restrictions are important.  I think people should be required to wear seat belts.  I think a government requirement for medical insurance is justified to protect people individually and society as a whole.

But I have increasingly been thinking that there are misguided liberals in our society who go too far in telling us what we need to do.  Such was my thought today when I heard that Angela Kennedy of the Toronto Catholic School Board was concerned that too many students were only listening respectfully to the national anthem when played at the beginning of the school day and not singing along.  She therefor suggested that the anthem be sung without accompaniment and the students forced to actually sing.

As a former teacher who stood mostly before grade 7 & 8 students at the beginning of each day for almost 30 years, I think that this is a terrible idea.  My demand was that they stand respectfully during the anthem.  Students at this age, especially the boys, are very self conscious and reluctant to sing.  I often told my students, truthfully, that I was sparing them a painful start to the day by not subjecting them to my singing voice.  Adolescents who are in the middle of puberty and whose voices are in the process of changing are probably in a similar boat.

Telling students, “you must sing,” is disrespectful to their sense of individuality and autonomy.  You may argue that students are forced to do other things against their wishes, such as doing speeches in front of their class or participating in sports activities during P.E. class.  That is true.  It is also true that they come to despise those kinds of activities.  Do you want them to come to despise the singing of their national anthem?  What it reinforces is the government shoving a decision down their throats, -and in a way that most adults would never tolerate.  How many adults would swallow a law stating that attendees must sing the anthem at a hockey game?  Perhaps we should have police walking around to spot those people with “questionable loyalties” like they do in totalitarian countries.

Another issue in demanding the singing is that not all people can subscibe to all of the lyrics in the Canadian National Anthem.  There has been considerable criticism of the line “…in all thy sons command,” which is regarded as sexist.  That argument has more weight when you consider the fact that there was no such sexist reference in the original lyrics; written in 1908, they had no such sexist line until the revision in 1968.  Perhaps more objectionable to some is the religious reference, “God keep our land, glorious and free”, which is becoming less and less a reflection of everyone’s personal beliefs here in Canada.  At least the English version maintains an inter-denominations religious tone, which cannot be said for the French version.  Occasionally we would play the French version at school or the French teacher would have the students sing it in French class.  I doubt that the translation has ever been offered to the students or to adults who have learned to parrot the phonemes of the French lyrics.  In those lyrics, which are considerably different from the English, there is the line, “As is thy arm ready to wield the sword, so also it is ready to bear the cross.”  Here, only Christian religions are represented.  I wonder how often the lyrics get sung by Montreal’s sizable Jewish population, or by other non-Christian denominations, or by the growing atheistic or secular population, for that matter.  I know several teenagers who would strongly object to being forced to sing about God in any context.  I know many adults who would cringe at a line about wielding a sword.

It is ironic that the suggestion to demand students sing the anthem was made by a Catholic trustee.  Catholics, along with many other religious worldviews, are used to demanding things on the grounds of righteousness.  They’re used to citing sin and invoking guilt.  They’re used to the analogy of shepherd and sheep.  Well, our students don’t appreciate being treated like sheep and I don’t think they should be encouraged to act that way.

You can’t please everyone, and I’m not saying that our national anthem shouldn’t be respected.  I am saying that singing it is a personal choice.  If I go to a dinner at a friend’s home and a prayer is said before a meal, or if I go to a wedding and a prayer is said,  I choose to not verbalize it, but I have respect for those who do and remain reverently silent.  I think that standing at attention during the playing of a national anthem is doing even more than that.  I would encourage a discussion of the lyrics at school.  I would encourage a study of the reasons we should be proud of our country.  I don’t think that students are going to feel more pride if a draconian rule is imposed forcing them to sing.

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