O Canada

The Many Changes to O Canada 
And Why You Shouldn’t Be Upset About Them! 

For 20 years, the Government of Canada, both Liberal and Conservative, has been trying to change the line “In all thy sons command” to make O Canada gender-inclusive.  Finally, on January 31, 2018, a bill was passed to change that line to “In all of us command”. 

I think the change is long overdue.  In fact, I thought that it passed years ago, and I have been singing “In all of us command” and wondering why others weren’t up with the times.  So now, I would like to talk about changes to O Canada – there have been so many, that we should not be upset about this one.  Those who say “Don’t tamper with the National Anthem!” will realize that it’s not a big deal, because it’s been changed so often before!

So let’s go back to 1880: the lyrics for O Canada were written in French in Quebec by a Judge, Adolphe-Basile Routhier, and the tune was composed by Calixa Lavallée for St. Jean Baptiste Day, which is a holiday for John the Baptist on June 24.  It became Quebec’s Chant Nationale.  That French version has not changed since.  So if you really believe that O Canada should never be changed, then you’ll need to start singing it in the original 1880 French!

It was 20 years later before the tune caught on in English Canada.  In 1901 there was a direct literal translation into English.  It was sung in English for the first time by school children in Toronto for the visit of the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future King George V.  This was called the Richardson version after the man who translated it.

Listen to this translation:

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

It doesn’t exactly slide off your tongue.  Birth and hearth don’t quite rhyme.  And I had to look up the word thrall – it means the state of being in someone’s power.

Apparently, the translation wasn’t popular, so there were several more versions written.  In the early 1900s there were even contests to re-write the lyrics.  The tune was popular, but they wanted better lyrics to go with it.  Collier’s magazine had a contest with 350 submissions and they announced on August 7, 1909, the winner was Mrs. Mercy E. Powell McCulloch.  But her version didn’t catch on either.

Another one was written by Ewing Buchan, a bank manager in Vancouver, whose version was promoted by the Vancouver Canada Club, and gained popularity in British Columbia.  But it sounds pretty strange and never caught on anywhere else.

Finally, the English version that became most widely used was written by Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer and later judge in Montréal. It was written to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of Québec City, and was published by Delmar Music in November 1908 with an arrangement of the music by Alfred Grant-Schafer.  Interesting that the English version also came out of Québec.

Weir’s 1908 version:

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.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

So, in the early version the line was:
True patriot love thou dost in us command.  Note that it is gender neutral, although a little odd with the “dost” for does.

Then, revisions were made to Weir’s version in 1913, 1914 and 1916 by that publisher.

Suddenly, in 1914, with no explanation, it was published as “in all thy sons command”.  Two things were going on at the time – The First World War was underway, where only young men were in combat (although we need to remember all the young women who served as nurses, clerks and interpreters).  It is said that the word “sons” was used to keep the soldiers’ spirits up.  But in fact, the fighting “sons” never heard about it – they were singing God Save the King along with their fellow British subjects, with whom they were fighting.

The second thing going on was the suffragette movement.  Women were demanding the right to vote, with loud protests and marches, and men were having none of it.  The change to the word “sons” might have been part of the push against women and their daughters having the vote.  Women got the vote in 1917 in Ontario.   So that use of the word “sons”, although it sounds innocent enough, may have been a means of putting women in their so-called place.  Never underestimate the power of a word.

Still, the song didn’t catch on until 1927, when it was declared the official song of the Diamond Jubilee for Canada’s 60th Anniversary.  After that it had scattered use as Canada’s song.

Then 40 years later, in 1967 for Canada’s Centennial, it was changed again.  There were actually four “Stand on guard for thee” lines, so the first use of it was changed to “From far and wide”.

Then, guess what happened in 1980?  Finally, O Canada officially became our National Anthem.   Until then, God Save the Queen (or King) was our official national anthem.  So really, as a national anthem, it isn’t that old!

The change to “In all of us command” was sponsored by late politician MP Mauril Bélanger, who proposed it in 2016.  And it was literally his dying wish to make O Canada gender neutral.  He passed away from ALS in July 2016 before the bill was passed.

The tune has more or less remained the same since the French version in 1880, although there have been many different arrangements created over the years.

Finally, please note that it is O Canada, not Oh Canada, as many people write it.  And it’s not O’Canada with an apostrophe – I’ve seen it written that way, too, as if it was an Irish name.

I doubt if we have seen the end of changes – I think there will be more to come.

  • For example, there are those who say the “thee s” should be “you s” since not too many of us say thee anymore. “With glowing hearts, We see you rise”, and “we stand on guard for you”, three times.
  • There is also a group proposing to change “native land” to “cherished land”. Native means born here, so cherished land might make the national anthem more meaningful to all the Canadians who weren’t born here.  We are well known for welcoming immigrants and refugees, so maybe our song should reflect that, and keep evolving with the times.
  • And finally, today, most school children learn an English-French hybrid. As more and more people in both French and English Canada learn the other language, mingling the words would make the most sense.

And if you really wanted to take the national anthem to heart, there are many more verses, as well as all the various versions, that you could memorize.

In the meantime, let’s sing it loudly and proudly:
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.

  • Mary Alderson, February 13, 2018

Note:  I am a proud member of the Grand Bend Women’s Probus Club.  (PROBUS is an association of active retirees who join together in clubs.  Its basic purpose is to provide
its members with regular opportunities to keep their minds active, expand their interests, and enjoy the fellowship of new friends.
  Probus originally stood for Professional and Business people, and is part of the Rotary organization.) I enjoy the opportunity to sing O Canada at the opening of each Probus meeting, so with the change of the words, I researched this history and presented this information to our Probus Group.


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