O Canada: Anthem Edition

O Canada

O Canada!  Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land, glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee;
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Above is the well-known and officially-recognized national anthem of Canada.  However, did you know it wasn’t always that song in that language with those words?  A lot of variations on a theme brought us to this point.  

It's time for my dad’s favorite subject: history.

The first version of 'O Canada' was written in 1880 and consisted of a French poem by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier set to music by prominent composer Calixa Lavallée.  The first ever performance of the song took place on June 24, 1880 in Quebec City and it was published without copyright shortly thereafter.  In years following, the next truly notable performance of 'O Canada' would be by school children for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall’s (later King George V and Queen Mary) Canadian tour in 1901.  Five years after that an English translation was made by  Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson.  His version went thusly:

O Canada! Our fathers' land of old
Thy brow is crown'd with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation's thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation's thrall.

Let it be said that I always enjoy a song that can utilize both the words ‘valour’ and ‘thrall’ effortlessly.  I also enjoy that Canada, in Richardson’s version, has a collective brow upon which sits a crown of autumn leaves.  Sadly, his version wouldn't stick.  In 1908 Collier’s Weekly held a competition for a different English text to accompany Lavallée’s music.  Mercy E. Powell McCulloch won the contest and her version of O Canada went thusly:

O Canada! in praise of thee we sing;
From echoing hills our anthems proudly ring.
With fertile plains and mountains grand
With lakes and rivers clear,
Eternal beauty, thos dost stand
Throughout the changing year.
Lord God of Hosts! We now implore
Bless our dear land this day and evermore,
Bless our dear land this day and evermore.

I am not as fond of songs that utilize the word ‘fertile’ especially as it describes plains.  I generally prefer my plains mainly full of rain in Spain.  I may not be alone in that sentiment since McCulloch’s version of the lyrics didn’t really take either.

The Government of Canada Canadian Heritage website (what, you thought I was copy-pasting all this from Wikipedia? pfffft) then states, and I quote, “Since then many English versions have been written for "O Canada". Poet Wilfred Campbell wrote one. So did Augustus Bridle, Toronto critic. Some were written for the 1908 tercentenary of Quebec City. One version became popular in British Columbia...” and it went thusly:

O Canada, our heritage, our love
Thy worth we praise all other lands above.
From sea to see throughout their length
From Pole to borderland,
At Britain's side, whate'er betide
Unflinchingly we'll stand
With hearts we sing, "God save the King",
Guide then one Empire wide, do we implore,
And prosper Canada from shore to shore.

Is that subtle shade at British Columbia, do you think?  I love a sassy government site!  In any case, it seems that version also didn’t take.  And even as a born and bred British Columbian I can’t say I’ve ever sung it myself so perhaps it wasn’t as popular as the government believed.  Though, let’s be honest, “from Pole to borderland” and “whate’er betide” are phrases we really should bring back.  Let's make fetch happen here.

Finally, in 1908, a lawyer by the name of Robert Stanley Weir wrote the following poem:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea,
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!

O Canada! O Canada! etc.

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies
May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,
To keep thee steadfast through the years
From East to Western Sea,
Our own beloved native land!
Our True North, strong and free!

O Canada! O Canada! etc.

It became rather popular and when a slightly modified version of the poem was published for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927, Weir’s version became the widely accepted unofficial anthem in English-speaking Canada.  Further minor tweaks would be made until, at long last, the first verse of Robert Stanley Weir’s poem - the one we sing today - was declared Canada’s national anthem in 1980.  (If you are concerned that we were an anthem-less nation adrift in a sea of musical obscurity before 1980, fear not: the official anthem prior to the adoption of ‘O Canada’ was ‘God Save the Queen’.)

Other top Canadian songs from 1980, just for the sake of fairly viewing available competition, include:
‘Echo Beach’ - Martha and the Muffins
‘Janine’ - Trooper
‘Daydream Believer’ - Anne Murray
‘Could I Have This Dance’ - Anne Murray
‘The Spirit of the Radio’ - Rush
‘The Kid is Hot Tonite’ - Loverboy

As much as I’d dearly love to live in a country whose national anthem is ‘Echo Beach’, I feel confident that the right song was ultimately chosen and catapulted to official status.  

Of course not everyone is entirely happy.  Last year a group of notable Canadians - including Margaret Atwood, former prime minister Kim Campbell, retired senator Vivienne Poy, senator Nancy Ruth, and Sally Goddard (whose daughter Nichola Goddard was the first female Canadian soldier killed in combat) - began a lobby to change the lyrics of ‘O Canada’.  Their particular complaint is with the ‘true patriot love in all thy son’s command’ lyric which, according to Atwood, “suggest that only male loyalty is being evoked”.  In truth, the words to Weir’s poem use the phrase ‘true patriot love thou dost in us command’ and it is to that original wording the group are lobbying to have the lyrics returned.  If you wish to learn more about the movement or voice your support for the change, please feel free to do so on the Restore Our Anthem website

But either way it’s Canada Day.  And one thing we must all agree on today is that we live in a damn fine country that’s worth fighting for and worth singing about.  So put on some red and raise your voice.  O Canada, we stand on guard for thee indeed.

Happy Canada Day, friends.


- Corinne Simpson