O Canada! The Canadian National Anthem

Posted on September 22, 2021

The Canadian national anthem, 'O Canada', has been a symbol of Canadian pride, fortitude, and patriotism since it was commissioned in 1880. Whether it's at sporting events, national holidays, memorials, or anything else, the stirring strains of 'O Canada' are sure to bring a tear to the eyes of any Canadian in earshot.

But while you may be stirred by the refrains of the Canadian national anthem, how much do you really know about it? Can you rattle off endless facts about its history, composition, and meaning of this hallowed artifact of Canadian patriotism? Or is it all a bit of a mystery to you?

Well, whatever your answer is, worry not. We're about to give you a crash course in how history has shaped the beautiful Canadian national anthem, 'O Canada'!

Dueling Anthems

'O Canada' didn't have a monopoly on the Canadian patriotic feeling for a long time. In fact, it was only officially embraced as the Canadian national anthem in 1980, a full century after it was first commissioned!

But that begs the question, what on earth were Canadians singing about their country before 1980?

Well, lots of things! Canada has no shortage of national tunes, and several different ones were used pretty much interchangeably before 'O Canada' got the official stamp as the Canadian national anthem in 1980.

Alexander Muir's 'The Maple Leaf Forever' was a very popular tune in the Canadian musical arsenal. Written in 1867, the same year Canada was confederated, Muir's opus was a top contender for the anthem spot before the country settled on 'O Canada'.

And, of course, Canada's deep historical ties to Great Britain are exemplified by the fact that another key national song was none other than 'God Save the Queen'. That's right, the British national anthem was for a long time another entry in Canada's repertoire of patriotic songs.

In fact, 'God Save the Queen' continues to be the royal anthem of Canada, even though 'O Canada' beat it to the post of national anthem.

Is Today's 'O Canada' the Same as Yesterday's?

Although you might think a national anthem has some kind of magical, inviolable aura around it, there have been a few changes to the Canadian national anthem over the years.

The first change happened about 28 years after 'O Canada' was first commissioned, in 1908. It changed the (admittedly clunky) line, "Thou dost in us command" to "In all thy sons command", a far less archaic-sounding set of words.

But an even bigger change came 18 years later, when a whole new stanza was added to the lyrics. This stanza added a very religious appeal to a "Ruler supreme", imploring them to hold Canada "In thy loving care". That might seem like a pretty left-field addition to a previously irreligious song, but it makes sense when you consider the other patriotic songs of the time, like 'God Save the Queen'.

But some profound changes have occurred in recent memory. In 1990, Toronto City Council voted to change "native land" to "cherished land" in the anthem's lyrics. After all, Canada is not necessarily the 'native' land of the people singing it at any given time, and the move was intended to make it more inclusive.

And finally, a small but meaningful change happened as recently as 2018. Canada's government passed a law amending the lyrics from "all thy sons" to "all of us" for reasons of gender inclusivity. After all, people who aren't men are patriots too!

And if that all seems like a lot of change for something as sacred as a national anthem, consider this: the entire thing was originally meant to only be sung in French!

Anthem Etiquette

Let's say you're flying abroad and need to organize an impromptu rendition of the anthem to maintain your Canadian bonafides while overseas (hey, it could happen). What's the proper etiquette for putting on a performance of 'O Canada'?

Well, the interesting thing is, there aren't a lot of hard-and-fast rules about the right way to perform the anthem. For example, while other anthems might be strict about performing them either before or after an event, the official Canadian guidelines for the Canadian national anthem are left up to the 'good citizenship' of the performers!

Is that more pressure on a performer or less? It's hard to tell.

But there are a few 'rules' about 'O Canada'. You're expected to stand for it (unless you physically can't, of course), and the men among the crowd have to take off their hats.

Women and children are allowed to keep their heads covered and warm, though. Lucky them!

Who Owns the Canadian National Anthem?

In a spiritual sense, of course, the Canadian anthem belongs to the people of Canada. But who do you have to pay royalties to when you use it in a film or TV show? The estate of its composer? The Canadian government?

Well, none of the above. The cool thing about 'O Canada' is that the melody and lyrics of the anthem are totally in the public domain. Any patriotic Canadian (or overseas Canadaphile) can freely make use of the words and tune of the anthem however they see fit.

Even more interesting is that 'O Canada' has no official arrangement at all! There's an official set of lyrics and a melody, sure, but musicians can and should feel free to arrange their performances however they like. That opens up a lot of space for interpretation and experimentation.

O Canada Lyrics

"O Canada" song was composed in 1880 by Calixa Lavallée – a popular composer at the time – and the French version were written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier.

O Canada English

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us 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.

O Canada French

Ô 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.

O Canada Bilingual

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command,

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

Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits,

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Sing It Loud, Sing It Proud

So there you have it, a quick look at some of the fascinating history behind the anthem of the 2nd biggest country on Earth. Now that you know some of the brilliant facts behind 'O Canada', we bet you're feeling more patriotic than ever.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and belt it out like only a Canadian can!

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