Canada celebrates its national holiday this weekend, three days ahead of the American Independence Day. Known as ”Canada Day” (though there’s a dispute over that), it will feature, as is customary, repeated playings of the country’s two national anthems, the English one and the French one.
The irony is that the French one repudiates much of what modern Canada is assumed widely to stand for. It is not universalist. It is not multicultural. It is not ”peace-making.” It is not secular. It boldly asserts the union of Church and State. Purely and simply, it’s an old-fashioned Catholic Christian hymn from the days of monarchy. Literally translated, the French version of ”O Canada” reads as follows:
O Canada, land of our forefathers,
Your brow is crowned with glorious garlands,
Because your arm knows how to carry the sword,
It knows how to carry the Cross.
Your history is an epoch of brilliant exploits
And your valor of tempered faith
will protect our homes and our rights.
For a country that has widely forbidden the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools and, in one province anyway, has prohibited the reprinting any biblical verses that might offend a ”minority group” (i.e., homosexuals) this would seem to be an unusual paean to its nationhood. Certainly it bears little resemblance to the English version which, though it admits a single mention of God, more generally extols the ”true North strong and free.”
Most ironic of all, Quebec is the most secularized of all ten Canadian provinces. It has the lowest church attendance rate, the highest abortion and divorce rates, the highest percentage of couples living together unmarried, and the lowest birth rate. How odd, therefore, that no legal challenge has ever been launched to this relic of its historic theocracy.
The simplest explanation for this lies in the separatist movement. Most youthful fervor of the last 25 years has been directed at getting Quebec out of Canada, not finding new words with which to celebrate its role within it.
Then, too, the Quebecois are accustomed to being surrounded by Christian symbolism. Many of their towns are named after saints. The church stands boldly at the center of every village. Even their casual swear words are rooted in Catholic practice and liturgy – ”tabernac” for tabernacle, ”ciboire” for ciborium, ”hostie” for host; all terms that designate utensils or an element in the Catholic mass.
Father Raymond da Souza, a Catholic priest and columnist for the National Post newspaper, last week described how the church in Quebec has launched an advertising campaign, reprinting these and other curse words on billboards, banners and posters, that explains what they mean and how they figure in the Eucharist. It’s a way of emphasizing, of course, the historically close connection between the people and the faith.
”You have to take people where they are,” says Father da Souza, endorsing the campaign. He calls it ”a backdoor reminder that the sacred still exists.”
He had noted that Madonna brought a special show to Montreal last week, promoted by an eight-page supplement in La Presse newspaper, which hailed her as ‘Madonna L’Icon’ and featured her wearing a crown of thorns. There was little or no protest voiced anywhere. ”Yes, it was blasphemous, but so what?” Such was the public response.
Blasphemy, in other words, has become boring. ”Madonna’s audience at the Bell Centre may not recognize it,” writes Fr. da Souza, ”but they are essentially bored, even amidst the lights and sounds of a stage spectacular. An audience that can move unremarkably from crucifixion scenes to Madonna’s more general fare of sexual deviancy is an audience for whom all things are equally unengaging. Boredom is deadly for those who wish to shock.”
One is inclined to wonder, however, what would happen in the Canadian West, where Christianity is still very much alive, if some enterprising public school board authorized its children to begin each day by heartily singing the French version of the national anthem ? the kids having been taught exactly what the words mean ? all about arms, the faith and the Cross? Would the courts prohibit this too? Would they, in other words, abolish the national anthem as incompatible with ”the Canadian Way?” Or would they merely rule that you had to be French to sing it? But how could this be reconciled with our bilingual programs? And would abolishing the French national anthem be taken as offensive to Quebec, however unsympathetic Quebeckers be with its assumptions? All this would be interesting to find out.