An Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman were captured while fighting in a far-off foreign land. The leader of the captors said, “We’re going to line you up in front of a firing squad and shoot you all in turn. But first, each can make a final wish.” The Englishman said, “I’d like to sing God Save The Queen to remind me of the old country”. The Irishman said, “I’d like to sing Danny Boy to remind me of the Old Country. The Welshman said, “I’d to sing Man Of Harlech to remind me of the old country. And the Scotsman said, “I’d like to be shot first!”
The year was 1880. In English Canada, for a national anthem, Canadians were singing either God Save The Queen or The Maple Leaf Forever. But in French Canada, there was no such national anthem to be found. So as Saint-Jean Baptiste Day was approaching, it was suggested by a clergyman that just such a song be created for Quebec. Soon thereafter, Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the lyrics to and Calixa Lavallee wrote the score for, O Canada. It was then sung for the first time in public on June 24, 1880, in Quebec City as part of the Saint-Jean Baptiste Day festivities. A first edition print of 6,000 copies of the song followed and it became very popular throughout the French province. (The original manuscript no longer exists and there are only two copies of the first printing known to have survived, both archived at Montreal University.) …
It would be another twenty years or so before O Canada made its way out of La Belle Province and into the rest of the nation (being introduced to English-speaking Canada in 1901 by school children singing the anthem as part of welcoming English royalty to Toronto – the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future King George V). Ultimately, twenty different English versions of the French anthem would be sung throughout the land until the 1908 translation by Robert Stanley Weir won out. Even so, it wasn’t until 1967 that a parliamentary committee recommended O Canada be the national anthem and only finally in 1980 was it enshrined as such by an official act of parliament. Today, O Canada is our official national anthem and God Save The Queen is our official royal anthem.
It was Stephen Harper and the Conservatives who first sent out the trial balloon of changing the lyric (“in all thy sons command”) to (“in all of us command), but it was immediately shot down by public opinion as three out of four Canadians were against it. However, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are going full speed ahead with the gender-neutral rewrite – using their House of Commons majority to vote down any public debate. And this has led to the concern that if we start tinkering with our anthem now, what else will politicians decide has also fallen out of current fashion? Will it become unfashionable to ask citizens to “stand on guard” or say “our home and native land,” as others have proposed? And how long before Canada, like Switzerland recently did, removes any reference to God?
The bottom line? I have a very simple solution for our a-historical politicians being uncomfortable singing O Canada as it is – then don’t sing it. Problem solved!