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Creating a Song for Canada

For the Week of Monday, April 10, 2017

On April 12, 1967, the House of Commons considered a committee report recommending that “O Canada” become the official national anthem.

Calixa Lavallée’s (above) work Cantata, composed in 1879 for the Governor-General and Princess Louise's arrival in Québec, earned him the appellation of Canada's "greatest musician"
Library and Archives Canada / C-070448 / MIKAN no. 3526369

“O Canada” was composed by Calixa Lavallée, with lyrics by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, as a specifically French Canadian anthem. The first performance of this patriotic song, commissioned by the St-Jean-Baptiste Society, was on June 24, 1880 in Québec City, in the midst of St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations and the National Convention of French Canadians. “O Canada” quickly became a favourite in French-speaking Canada.

By this time, the English-speaking population had already developed a strong patriotic musical tradition of its own, with “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save the Queen (King)” widely regarded as unofficial national anthems. However, neither mentioned French Canada’s role in the country’s history. Instead, these songs stressed Canada’s connection with Great Britain, alienating many in the French-speaking population.

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A photograph of Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier ca. 1890. A shortened version of his lyrics are still sung today as the French anthem
Wikimedia Commons / Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec / P560,S2,D1,P1149 / Fonds J. E. Livernois Ltée

Written in French, “O Canada,” did not appear with English lyrics until the early 1900s. There were several attempts at drafting an English version of the song. The one by Thomas B. Richardson in 1906 was an almost literal translation of the first two verses. Two years later, Robert Stanley Weir published his English-language version of “O Canada.” Weir’s version adapted the song to make it an anthem for both English and French Canadians. Although his lyrics have undergone some changes since then, they are largely preserved as the English text of the official national anthem today.

The creation of a national anthem and the use of “O Canada” for this purpose were subjects of debate for decades. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson pushed for the establishment of a national anthem in conjunction with his campaign to create a distinct Canadian flag. However, it was only on June 27, 1980, that the federal government officially proclaimed “O Canada” to be Canada’s national anthem.

Calixa Lavallée and Lester Bowles Pearson are designated national historic persons. To learn more about them, read O Canada! and Canadian wins Nobel Peace Prize. To learn more about our national symbols read Our True Colours: The 50th Anniversary of the Canadian Flag in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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