7 things you didn’t know about ‘O Canada,’ the country’s national anthem
You sang it every morning in grade school, you still do right before the hockey game and you definitely will on July 1.
O Canada, our country’s national anthem, is entrenched in our identity as much as maple syrup, Tim Hortons and poutine.
“O Canada can send patriotic shivers down your spine. There’s something to be said for the few occasions where everybody stands up together and sings out loud with a roaring tune, affirming our belonging and shared love of our nation,” Christopher Moore, a Canadian historian who’s won two Governor General awards for his writing, told Global News.
But where did the anthem for the true north, strong and free come from?
Here’s a look at seven things every Canadian should know about O Canada.
Two Quebeckers created O Canada
Believe it or not, two Quebec City locals wrote O Canada and it was originally called Chant national. Not so catchy, eh?
Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a notable judge, penned the lyrics in French while composer Calixa Lavallee pulled together the music.
“It was first performed in a skating rink on June 24, 1880 on Sainte-Jean-Baptiste Day,” Dr. Robin Elliott, a University of Toronto professor in musicology, and chair in Canadian music at the school, told Global News.
There were no English lyrics.
There were other options, but they didn’t stick
While Chant national was making the rounds in the 1880s, Anglophones stuck to their songs of choice: The Maple Leaf Forever and God Save the King.
“I remember in my school days before O Canada, we sang both of these songs,” Elliott said.
But they weren’t exclusive to Canada and left out large parts of the country.
The Maple Leaf Forever, for example, refers to the shamrock, the thistle and the rose uniting, symbolizing Irish, Scottish and English roots. There is no reference to the French.
“It was far too specific to English Canada to ever be adopted,” Elliott said.
God Save the King didn’t resonate with the fledgling country trying to forge its own identity, but O Canada appealed to the wider audience.
“It became popular before there were even English lyrics, and it was insinuating itself into the national consciousness before it became officially adopted,” Elliott said.
Canada didn’t have an official national anthem for a century
It took a lot of bureaucracy to make O Canada the national anthem. While it was taking shape as the de facto anthem, politicians proposed bills and held special committee meetings to make it the real deal.
“In 1867 and for decades after that, there was debate and discussion in Canada about whether Canada was an independent nation with its own trappings of nationality or if it was part of the British Empire,” Moore said.
“No one immediately decided that we needed our own anthem,” he explained.
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It wasn’t until 1980, 100 years after its premiere that O Canada became the official anthem, according to Ottawa’s National Anthem Act.
God Save the Queen is still the Royal Anthem of Canada, though. It’s still sung at events, such as royal visits, regal salutes or ceremonies with the Governor General in tow.
The English lyrics have had their share of tweaking
While the French lyrics have stood the test of time, the English version didn’t come so easily. A direct French translation didn’t fly so competitions were held to try to find an acceptable English version.
A few came out of the woodwork but none gained traction.
It wasn’t until 1908, when Montrealer Robert Weir penned the lyrics we’re all familiar with now.
The lyrics don’t match up in English and French
Skim through the French and English versions of our anthem and you’ll see little overlap.
“O Canada is the only part that matches. Otherwise, there’s no connection between the two, they were done completely independently,” Elliott said.
The French lyrics refer to Catholicism, bearing the cross, carrying a sword and calling Canada the land of our forefathers.
The English lyrics are much more generic with fewer references to religion and waging war. They also call the country, “our home and native land” instead of the land of our ancestors.
These disparities are important to note, both experts say.
“The English version is a simple affirmation of love and service for our country. It’s patriotic without making reference to a particular event or a particular group of people,” Moore said.
Every anthem binds communities together but at the expense of excluding others, though, Elliott said. It’s a trade-off.
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“The French lyrics are more restrictive than English. It’s a song for people whose ancestors have always been in Canada but the English version is for people born in Canada and that excludes millions of people, too,” Elliott said.
There are no references to Indigenous people or immigrants.
It riffs off of European classical music, including Mozart
O Canada is a solid piece of music composition, according to Elliott. It’s a 28-bar song written as a formal march in a stately tempo.
“The reason why it works so well as a national anthem is it falls well for the average singing voice unlike the U.S. national anthem which causes lots of problems for singers,” Elliott said.
It resembles existing pieces of European classical music too, specifically sharing the same melodic outline with the second act of Mozart’s Magic Flute.
It makes you proud to be Canadian
Do you remember singing O Canada right before Team Canada’s big gold medal win in hockey against Sweden in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi? How about in 2010 when Team Canada beat the U.S. at the Vancouver Winter Games?
Moore remembers the patriotism in the air.
“It’s a moving memory for me. Our anthem, it builds up associations over the years — it’s uplifting, makes you proud to be Canadian, gives you a feeling of community and togetherness,” he said.
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