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The History of "O Canada"
by Paul

Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada”, is the song through which we express our Canadian national identity.  “O Canada” was first sung on June 24, 1880, yet not becoming Canada’s official national anthem until 100 years later, on July 1, 1980.  The history of “O Canada” is unique, and intriguing.

The music, or tune, for “O Canada” was composed in 1880 by Calixa Lavallee, well known at that time for his outstanding music and composing skills which earned him the title of “Canada’s national musician.”  Lavallee was asked by the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Quebec, the Honourable Theodore Robitaille, to compose a tune for an upcoming official banquet in Quebec.  Lavallee created several music compositions, until his professional friends finally concurred with one superior melody.  The Lieutenant Governor approved this final tune for the banquet, the tune which we know today of “O Canada.”

While Lavallee was working on developing his melody for the banquet, the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec asked Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to write a French poem, or a song, to accompany the music being created by Lavallee.  At that time, Routhier was not only a Canadian lawyer and judge, but also a famous Canadian poet.  Routhier wrote – in French – “O Canada.”  The French lyrics of “O Canada” being sung today are exactly the same as in Routhier’s original poem.  “O Canada,” as composed by Lavallee and with French lyrics by Routhier, was first performed on June 24, 1880, at the National Congress of French Canadians banquet in Quebec City.  This song gained popularity soon after that.

The first English version of “O Canada” did not appear until about 26 years later when in 1906, Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson of Toronto, translated the French lyrics into English.  Other English versions soon started appearing.  Then in 1908, the Canadian Collier’s Weekly magazine held a contest for the best English translation of “O Canada.”  It was won by Mercy E. Powell McCulloch, but her version did not become popular.  Soon after, it was the straight-forward and simple translation by Robert Stanley Weir which made his translation widely accepted.  Similar to Routhier, Weir was also a Canadian lawyer, judge, and poet.

Weir wrote his English version of “O Canada” in 1908, honouring the 300th anniversary of the founding of the City of Quebec.  A slightly modified form of Weir’s 1908 English poem was published in an official form for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927, and has since been well accepted in English speaking Canada.  In 1968, the Canadian Parliament recommended minor changes to Weir’s first verse.

100 years after it had been first sung in French, “O Canada” has become Canada’s national anthem.  Although the original French lyrics have not changed, the modified first verse of Weir’s poem was declared by the Canadian Parliament on July 1, 1980, in accordance with the National Anthem Act, as the official English version of Canada’s anthem.

Official Lyrics of O Canada!

     Lyrics O Canada (English version)
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.

     Lyrics O Canada (French version)

« O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!

Car ton bras sait porter l'épée,
Il sait porter la croix!

Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.

Et ta valeur, de foi trempée,
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits. »

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For reference and further details, check these sources:

1.  Canadian Heritage
2. O Canada Our National Anthem (2003, publisher: North Winds Press, a division of  
    Scholastic Canada Ltd.)

(November 11, 2012)

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