The History of O Canada

Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.

On Wednesday, January 27th history was made in the House of Commons by Liberal Member of Parliament, Mauril Bélanger. Recently diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Bélanger used a text-to-speech program on his iPad to introduce his private member’s bill as he has lost his voice. This is the first time a speech has been delivered electronically in the House. So what was that bill about? Oh, it was an appeal to make Canada’s national anthem gender-netural.

Update – On June 15, 2016, Mauril Bélanger’s Bill C-210 was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 225-74. Sadly, Bélanger died two months later at the age of 61 on August 16, 2016.


Historical Overview

The history of the Canadian national anthem stretches all the way back to 1880. Théodore Robitaille, Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, commissioned a national song to be written for the Saint Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony that year. Originally called Chant National, Calixa Lavallée composed the music and Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the accompanying lyrics. (Please note they have been translated from French):

O Canada!
Land of our forefathers,
Your brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
Because your arm can wield the sword,
And it is ready to carry the cross.
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant exploits.
Your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights.
Under the eye of God, near the giant river,
The Canadian grows hoping.
He was born of a proud race,
Blessed was his birthplace.
Heaven has noted his career
In this new world.
Always guided by its light,
He will keep the honour of his flag,
He will keep the honour of his flag.
From his patron, the precursor of the true God,
He wears the halo of fire on his brow.
Enemy of tyranny,
But full of loyalty,
He wants to keep in harmony,
His proud freedom;
And by the effort of his genius,
Set on our ground the truth,
Set on our ground the truth.Sacred love of the throne and the altar,
Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!
Among the foreign races,
Our guide is the law:
Let us know how to be a people of brothers,
Under the yoke of faith.
And repeat, like our fathers,
The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”
The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”


Left: Sketch of Calixa Lavallée from L’Opinion Publique (1873). Right: Adolphe-Basile Routhier (c. 1890)

Fun Fact: Why is the first part in bold? If you translate it back, you will wind up essentially with the lyrics for the official modern French version of O Canada. Yup, they have been singing roughly the same song since 1880.

Chant National was first performed on June 24, 1880 at the Congrès National des Canadian-Français and it quickly became popular among Francophones. Meanwhile God Save the Queen and The Maple Leaf Forever were the unofficial anthems for Anglophones. Given the strong British elements in both songs, neither of those became popular with French-Canadians. It took about 20 years and several rewrites by various poets and writers before Chant National caught on throughout Canada. Sort of. It was Lavallée’s music that lasted and not Routhier’s lyrics. It took until 1908 for one of the rewrites to catch on. It was by Justice Robert Stanley Weir and titled O Canada:

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.
Refrain: 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!
(Refrain)
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!
(Refrain)
Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion within Thy loving care.
Help us to find, O God, in Thee,
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day
We ever stand on guard.

Justice Robert Stanley Weir ( c. 1899)

This version of the anthem underwent a number of changes since its creation, namely a reduction of repetitive lines. However, the critical change was made by Weir himself in 1913. He changed “thou dost in us command” to in “all thy sons command.” Weir provided no explanation for the change; historians suggest it was meant as a jab to the growing women’s suffrage movement at the time.* Weir made subsequent minor changes in 1914 and 1916. More changes occurred between then and 1980, when Weir’s version was officially adopted as Canada’s national anthem. Why did it take so long? Partly because the government did not obtain the rights to Weir’s poem until 1970 and the government did not see a point in forcing citizens to choose between O Canada or God Save the Queen. On June 18, 1980, the House of Commons under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau unanimously passed a bill that made Weir’s poem the official anthem.

* Fun Fact: January 28th marked the 100th anniversary of Manitoba women gaining the right to vote. They were the first to do so in Canada and the British Commonwealth.

The Controversy

Mauril Bélanger, Liberal Member of Parliament for Ottawa—Vanier.

Since 1980, various Members of Parliament have tried to add women back to the anthem not once, not twice, but ten times. Jump ahead to 2016 and we are on the eleventh attempt. Last Wednesday, Mauril Bélanger reintroduced his private member’s bill to make O Canada more inclusive, arguing that the bill is meant to “pay tribute to all the women who have worked and fought to build and shape the Canada that we know today.” He tried to get this bill passed before under the Harper government, but the bill was narrowly defeated. Basically he wants to change two words, “thy sons” to “of us.”

Arguments Against the Change

  • What PC Feminist Garbage Is This?! – Better known as the “slippery slope” fallacy, proponents of this argument decry the wave of political correctness that has swept the country and ask where does it stop? As Conservative MP Karen Vecchio stated in a recent interview, the change “opens up a can of worms. […] We will be changing the entire national anthem into something that we don’t even recognize.” I know right? Two words really does change up the whole song. Next thing you know they’re going to want to replace the leaf on the Canadian flag with the Venus symbol.
  • God Keep Our Land – This isn’t 100% against the change; some people want more. They take issue with “God keep our land” and want the government to change that line as well. The 2011 census revealed 23.9% of Canadians have no religious affiliation. As such, the line should be removed because it acknowledges a deity that almost 1/4 of Canadians don’t believe in. Others have an all-or-nothing approach, if they are not going to change that line, then they should not change any of it.
  • What About _______? – People are wondering why the government is focusing on an issue like this when they should be working on more important issues like the economy, oil prices, terrorism, etc.

Arguments in Favour of the Change

  • Inclusiveness – It should go without saying that women are patriotic too and as Bélanger put it, “have worked and fought to build and shape the Canada that we know today.” Given that women make up half of the country, they should be included in a song that is supposed to represent Canadians as a whole. After all, equality is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of Canadian values.
  • History – The proposed change is not an attack on tradition because it is closer to the original line. Unlike the French version, the English anthem has been changed numerous times, so really this is just a continuation of that fluid history.
  • How Governments Actually Work – The government is capable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. With regards to the economy, (which was the main “other issue” brought up by those against the change), the federal budget is currently being worked on and is usually released in either February or March, regardless of whatever else the government happens to be working on at the time. Also, the bill is expected to be addressed and voted on by the House sometime in the spring, after the release of the budget and the updated plan for Canada’s mission in the Middle East.

Music sheet for O Canada, containing the lyrics in English, French, and Inuktitut.

So what do you think about all this? Do you think the eleventh time will be the charm? Should they change the lyrics? Would you like to see more changes? Or should the government just leave things alone?


 Sources

Bélanger, Claude, “National Anthem of Canada,” The Quebec History Encyclopedia, Marianopolis College. Accessed from: http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/encyclopedia/Anthem.htm

“Tory MP Karen Vecchio says bid to change O Canada lyrics ‘opens up a can of worms'” CBC News. January 26, 2016. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/canadian-national-anthem-1.3422739

Maloney, Ryan, “Mauril Belanger, Liberal MP Battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Makes History In House Of Commons,” The Huffington Post. January 28, 2016. Accessed from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/01/28/mauril-belanger-als-ipad-speech-house-of-commons_n_9098670.html

“National Anthem: O Canada,” Canadian Heritage, Government of Canada, February 5, 2014. Accessed from: http://pch.gc.ca/eng/1359402373291/1359402467746

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6 thoughts on “The History of O Canada

  1. fbrzez says:

    I wasn’t aware of how many changes had been made to O Canada until I found this weird version in a WWI-era booklet. Then after I looked up the history of the song I thought of this whole debate, and was like “Why are we making such a big deal about this?” I hadn’t given it much thought before, but considering how many variations there have been it seems like we should just get on with it. In twenty years’ time likely no one will remember!

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Yeah, I didn’t know there had been so many changes over the past century.

      “In twenty years’ time likely no one will remember!” Haha, that’s definitely likely!

      Like

  2. LT says:

    Great read (as always) – If they were to change it, I’m sure there will be many who will still sing the ‘original’ lyrics, because they are either stubborn (those are usually the same people who get offended when I say Happy Holidays), or because they are forgetful, which is what I would do! Interesting argument about the fluid history of the lyrics. Personally, I take no issue with adapting the anthem as needed for the sake of inclusivity.

    I always like surprising people by telling them that O Canada has only been the official anthem since 1980! Hehe, we had one Trudeau introduce it, maybe it will be another Trudeau who will adapt it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you very much! Yeah, it’s a fun trivia fact. Even I was surprised when I first found out. I thought it became official around the time our flag was chosen.

      Haha, if it happens that will be a funny historical parallel!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris says:

    More changes? Yes, I’d like to see god removed from the anthem. Despite not being too aware of my nascent atheist leanings as a teen when Trudeau Sr changed the lyrics, its inclusion struck me as wrong. (I was in actuality probably motivated by the notion that we should “be more like the USA and separate church and state).

    Today, I find it wrong and bordering on the abhorrent and ironically, making us too much like the States.

    Liked by 1 person

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