THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM

Canada has had “official” national anthems, one in English and one in French, only since July 1, 1980 when the National Anthem Act passed by Parliament came into force. But both songs were sung by Canadians for decades before 1980. Although they share the title “O Canada”, the English song uses the music from the French song, but the English words are not a translation of the words in the French song!

The Original English Lyrics

A number of poems were set to Calixa Lavallée’s music, including one written in 1908 by Judge R. Stanley Weir of Montréal, in honour of the 300th anniversary of the founding of Québec City.  Here are the words Weir wrote in 1908 (first verse only, emphasis added):

O Canada!

Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us

command.
We set 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.

Changes to the English Lyrics

Judge R. Stanley Weir, who authored the original, is known to have amended his poem in 1913, 1914 and 1916.  By 1913, he had changed the second line of the poem to (emphasis added): “True patriot love in all thy sons command”.  The historical record confirms the change but does not give any indication of the reason.

In 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation, the Government of Canada authorized the Weir song for singing in schools and at public functions.  The Government would keep the second line from the 1913 version, not the original 1908 gender-inclusive version, although it would change other words in 1927, and again in 1980, to what we know today.

Since 1980, there have been ten private member’s bills introduced in Parliament to change the second line of the English anthem to words that include both genders.  None have passed.  The eleventh bill to propose this change, Bill C-210, was introduced in the House of Commons on February 27, 2016.

The National Anthem Act makes clear that the words of O Canada are in the public domain. They are our words. We can change them.

The introduction of Bill C-210 on the floor of the House.

The French Lyrics

The French song came first.  Calixa Lavallée was asked to compose music for a French poem written by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier.  It was first performed on June 24, 1880, St. Jean-Baptiste Day, at the Congrès national des Canadian-Français.  As the French song gained in popularity in Québec, things were very different in the rest of Canada.  English translations of the French song were put in circulation, but never proved popular. Although the French song has never changed, the English song has had a long evolution and seen several changes.

Although it has never been designated an “official” version by legislation, the Government of Canada has also provided a blended, bilingual version of the French and English versions for use by Canadians.