Canada's Two National Anthems

"O Canada" has a long and bizarre history. It's the topic we explore in our first episode of Canadiana (which you can watch below). The song didn't become our national anthem until 1980, but it was written a hundred years earlier. The music was composed by an American Civil War veteran from Montreal with the awesome name of Calixa Lavallée. The lyrics were penned by a Québecois judge who would be knighted by both the king and the pope: Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier.

But they didn't write the song to be Canada's national anthem — they wrote it to be Quebec's. "O Canada" was composed in honour of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: an ancient religious celebration that would eventually become Quebec's national holiday.

So, as you might imagine, the original lyrics were written in French. Nearly 30 years went by before "O Canada" was translated into English by another judge: Montreal's Robert Stanley Weir. But, uh, maybe "translated" is the wrong word to use. Because Weir's English version bears little resemblance to the original French lyrics.

Anglophones and francophones are singing two very different national anthems.

For instance, in the spot where English-speaking Canadians are singing about "glowing hearts", francophones are singing about swords. Anglophones stand on guard for "thee"; francophones stand on guard for "our rights." And at the same time the English lyrics are talking about standing on guard "far and wide", the French version is celebrating Canadian history as "an epic of the most brilliant exploits."

That's just for starters. Routhier was deeply conservative and very religious. In his most famous decision as a judge, he ruled that it was perfectly fine for priests to tell their parishioners that if they didn't vote for the Tories, they would burn in hell for eternity. And he made sure his religious views were echoed in the lyrics of the anthem he wrote to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. All four original French verses of "O Canada" are very, very religious — its most striking difference from the English version.

Just take a look at some of the lines:

Under the eye of God, near the great river / The Canadian grows in hope.
Sous l'oeil de Dieu, près du fleuve géant / Le Canadien grandit en espérant.

Heaven holds his destiny / In this new world. / Always guided by its light, / He will keep the honour of his flag...
Le ciel a marqué sa carrure / Dans ce monde nouveau. / Toujours guidé par sa lumière, / Il gardera l'honneur de son drapeau...

From his patron, precursor of the true God, / He wears a halo of fire.
De son patron, précurseur du vrai Dieu / Il porte au front l'auréole de feu

Routhier's original French lyrics also talk about "sacred love... under the yoke of the faith" and he personifies Canada as a flower-wreathed god with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other.

The song ends with a cry for patriotic Christian militarism complete with unfortunately gendered pronouns:

And let us repeat, like our fathers, / the victorious cry: "For Christ and the King!" / The victorious cry: "For Christ and the King!"
Et répétons, comme nos pères / Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi, / Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi.

(We'll post the full French lyrics and their direct translation below, so you can check out the whole thing yourself.)

In fact, by the time Pierre Trudeau's government finally approved "O Canada" as the national anthem in 1980, the Liberals had actually changed a line in Weir's original English translation in order to make it seem more religious than it really was. That's how we got the bit about god keeping our land glorious and free.

Today, of course, there's a third version, too — a bilingual version, officially endorsed by the Canadian government. It switches back and forth between the French and English lyrics. It's a bit awkward, but at least we have one version of "O Canada" during which anglophones and francophones are singing the same song.

 

 

"O CANADA"
ORIGINAL FRENCH LYRICS, 1880

Verse One

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 trempe,
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.

Verse Two

Sous l'oeil de Dieu, près du fleuve géant,
Le Canadien grandit en espérant.
Il est d'une race fière,
Béni fut son berceau.
Le ciel a marqué sa carrure
Dans ce monde nouveau.
Toujours guidé par sa lumière,
Il gardera l'honneur de son drapeau,
Il gardera l'honneur de son drapeau.

Verse Three

De son patron, précurseur du vrai Dieu,
Il porte au front l'auréole de feu.
Ennemi de la tyrannie Mais plein de loyauté.
Il veut garder dans l'harmonie,
Sa fière liberté;
Et par l'effort de son génie,
Sur notre sol asseoir la vérité.
Sur notre sol asseoir la vérité.

Verse Four

Amour sacré du trône et de l'autel,
Remplis nos cœurs de ton souffle immortel!
Parmi les races étrangères,
Notre guide est la loi;
Sachons être un peuple de frères,
Sous le joug de la foi.
Et répétons, comme nos pères
Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi,
Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi.

 

DIRECT ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Verse One

O Canada! Land of our forefathers,
Thy brow is wreathed with glorious flowerets!
For thy arm knows how to bear the sword,
It knows how to bear the cross!
Thy history is an epic
Of the most brilliant exploits.
And thy valour, tempered with faith,
Will protect our homes and our rights.
Will protect our homes and our rights.

Verse Two

Under the eye of God, near the great river,
The Canadian grows in hope.
He was born from a proud race,
Blessed was his cradle.
Heaven holds his destiny
In this new world.
Always guided by its light,
He will keep the honour of his flag,
He will keep the honour of his flag.

Verse Three

From his patron, precursor of the true God,
He wears a halo of fire.
Enemy of tyranny
But full of loyalty,
He wants to keep in harmony,
His proud liberty;
And by the effort of his genius,
On our ground the truth is seated,
On our ground the truth is seated.

Verse Four

Sacred love of throne and altar,
Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!
Amongst this race of strangers,
Our guide is the law:
Let us be a brotherly people,
Under the yoke of the Faith.
And let us repeat, like our fathers,
the victorious cry: "For Christ and the King!"
The victorious cry: "For Christ and the King!"

 

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