Our National Anthem’s 35th Anniversary: The Evolution of “O Canada”

Erin Virgint
Legal and Social Affairs Division

On Canada Day 2015, the nation celebrates the 35th anniversary of “O Canada” as its official national anthem. Versions of the song have been sung for over a century. But the composition was not proclaimed as the national anthem until 1 July 1980, the day the National Anthem Act came into force.

The Act sets out the lyrics to “O Canada” in both official languages, as well as the melody. There have been numerous attempts to modify the English lyrics since then, but none of them has been successful.

The anthem’s origins: Patriotic song in French Canada

“O Canada” was originally commissioned for the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français, which was held in the city of Québec on 24 June 1880, St. Jean-Baptiste Day. Well-known composer Calixa Lavallée composed the melody, and Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a judge and poet, wrote the accompanying French lyrics, which remain unchanged to this day.

While it quickly became a patriotic song in French Canada, it did not catch on in English Canada until the early 20th century. Attempts were made to translate it, but with little success.

For a number of years, many English versions of “O Canada” were sung at public events. In 1908, the Honourable Robert Stanley Weir, judge of the Exchequer Court of Canada (known now as the Federal Court of Canada), wrote the version that became the anthem Canadians sing today. The first verse of Weir’s 1908 poem went this way:

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.

Source of unity in a time of crisis

Throughout the First World War, the song became widely known across the country and among Canadian soldiers serving overseas, acting as a source of unity in a time of crisis.

It was sung at a memorial service for Canadian soldiers at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, in 1915, for example. In the late 1920s, many schools began to include singing “O Canada” as part of their daily routine.

Despite the song’s widespread popularity, it was not until the 1960s that an attempt was made to designate “O Canada” as the official national anthem. On 31 January 1966, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson introduced a motion in the House of Commons. It requested: “That the government be authorized to take such steps as may be necessary to provide that ‘O Canada’ shall be the National Anthem of Canada while ‘God Save The Queen’ shall be the Royal Anthem of Canada.”

The motion was approved by the House of Commons, and in 1967 a special subcommittee was struck to study the matter. It recommended the original French version and a modified version of Weir’s lyrics.

The National Anthem Act

In June 1980, shortly after the Quebec referendum, Parliament quickly passed the National Anthem Act. Weir’s 1908 poem was shortened and changed slightly for the English lyrics, which now began, “O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all thy sons command.” Routhier’s French lyrics written in 1880 remained the same.

Debate on the bill was limited, with the promise that amendments to the Act could be considered in the future. The then Secretary of State and Minister of Communications, Francis Fox, told the Commons:

Many would like to see the words “thy sons” and “native land” replaced … to better reflect the reality of Canada. I believe all members are sympathetic to these concerns. I would therefore like to assure honourable members that in the course of the next session the government would be more than willing to see the subject matter of a private member’s bill on this question … referred to the appropriate committee of the House for consideration.

Twelve bills have attempted to amend the anthem

Despite frequent discussions and many attempts, the Act has never been changed. Since 1980, 12 bills have tried to amend the anthem. Specifically, nine private members’ bills and three government bills have been introduced, and all have been defeated.

The vast majority of proposed amendments have attempted to promote gender inclusiveness. Ten bills have aimed to replace the words “thy sons” with “of us” or “our hearts.”

In addition, in 1980 one bill aimed to remove the word “native” from the anthem and in 2003, another bill aimed to create an official bilingual version of the national anthem to reflect Canada’s linguistic duality.

As well, in the 2010 Speech from the Throne, the Governor General stated: “Our Government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.”