Chances are you’ll watch the flag wave on Canada Day — red and white rippling — and add your voice to the crowd, promising in song to stand on guard for the nation.
While the flag is a highly visible symbol of Canada, it’s the communal singing of O Canada that experts say really contributes to nation-building. And if the goal of the anthem is nation-building, is it still necessary more than 150 years after Canada’s creation?
Anthems are powerful and complex.
Mess up a performance and you might be panned, but mess up O Canada and your actions could be seen as an affront to an entire country, says Robin Elliott, the Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music at the University of Toronto.
Elliott is one of four music, history and culture experts who weighed in on the pride, pitfalls and value of a national anthem in honour of Canada’s 152nd birthday.
Where do anthems come from?
Songs designed to “unite the population around shared values” started to emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries, says Julia Wright, a professor of English and university research professor at Dalhousie University. France gets La Marseillaise and Britain gets Rule Britannia.
“It’s very much tied to the idea that the nation isn’t the king or the queen but is the entire population of the country,” she says — or at least, the entire population of a particular political movement.
It was an effective way of communicating, Wright explains: books were expensive at the time, and literacy was beyond many people’s reach.
“There’s this sort of thinking of songs as a way of communicating political principles and shared values as well as uniting the population through a communal act,” she says. “The state anthems we have now are kind of an extension of that.”
Think about going to a baseball game, basketball game or hockey game, says Chandrima Chakraborty, a professor in English and cultural studies at McMaster University.
People stand up, and they sing the anthem before the game starts. Usually, Chakraborty says, unless they do something in protest — like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who take a knee during the anthem — you don’t think much of it. But the reality is, anthems started as a way to mobilize support for war efforts, Chakraborty says.
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“Now, it’s just become ritual,” she says.
“It’s a bit of history, but we often forget the context of how these things began.”
Words vs. melody
The Canadian anthem is uniquely beautiful, says John Beckwith, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.
“There are a lot of anthems that we sing out of patriotism, but they’re not really very interesting,” he says.
Beckwith isn’t speaking about the lyrics here, just the tune.
That final line — O Canada, we stand on guard for thee — is one of his favourites. It starts high “and then curves down to the ending,” Beckwith says.
“I’m a composer and I believe in melody having shape and curve, and that curve is something that, probably, he (composer Calixa Lavallée) thought about.”
Even if many public performances of the anthem botch that curve, ending on a high note rather than a low note, Beckwith says the song still holds magic.
“It makes us take a moment or so to reflect on how lucky we are to live in Canada, which is close to being the best country in the world to live in,” he says.
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It’s a more powerful reflection tool than simply looking at the flag, Beckwith says.
“It’s something deeper. … It’s something you do. You don’t just use your eyes, you use your voice.”
That isn’t to say the lyrics don’t matter, says Beckwith, who has followed “quibbles” over the years about lyric changes and even sometimes agreed with them (“in all thy sons command” became “in all of us command”).
“It seems to me it’s still the music of the anthem that moves us and is the centre of that one-and-a-half minute experience.”
Who is the Canadian anthem for?
If you’re going to have a conversation about who is included and who is left out of the Canadian anthem, you have to tease apart whether you’re talking about the music or the lyrics and whether you’re talking about the English or French version, Elliott says.
Musically, he says, the anthem combines religious hymns with military imagery of a European nature, which means it leaves out non-European people and Indigenous people.
Lyrically, Elliott says, who is and isn’t included depends on whether you’re listening to the French or English version. The French one “celebrates a specific kind of Canadian identity,” he says, “one that is conservative and religious.”
The cross and sword references are a nod to the Crusades, while the line “terre de nos aïeux” (land of our ancestors) speaks specifically to old-stock French-Canadians.
The English lyrics are “less restrictive,” Elliott says.
However, he says, while there are references to ancestors, there is a reference to Canadians being born here — “our home and native land” — that excludes recent immigrants as well as Indigenous people. From a religious standpoint, he says the lyrics “God keep our land” also exclude atheists.
“There’s no way that you can be entirely inclusive.”
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t tinker with it, he says — a nod to changes last year to revert the anthem to its gender-neutral form — but that, to a certain extent, it is “a bit of a futile exercise.”
So what is the purpose of a national anthem that doesn’t evolve as the nation does?
Nation-building, Elliott says.
“There’s a large group of people working together to perform the anthem, and that’s kind of a symbolic enactment of nation-building,” he explains. “I think that’s what is absolutely crucial and irreplaceable.”
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Anthems as a litmus test
When people broach possible changes to the national anthem, it often raises the ire of a lot of others.
It’s like “tampering with something sacrosanct,” says Elliott, although he isn’t quite convinced people are always upset because of the anthem itself.
“It becomes a litmus test for people’s views on issues that have nothing to do with the national anthem,” he says.
“People’s views on political correctness and gender inclusivity and any other issue people have very strong views on.”
Wright says she gets the sense, too, that people just don’t like change. And even if they did, change — once an anthem has become institutionalized, once it becomes a national anthem — is hard.
When anthems first entered into popular culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, they changed quite a bit, Wright says.
“They were constantly changing lyrics to respond to particular situations,” she explains.
“But the minute you move to the state level and things become official, it becomes much more fixed and permanent and hard to change.”
That doesn’t mean people don’t try.
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In India, there has been plenty of debate over whether to change the anthem, Chakraborty says, and the debate is wrapped up in colonialism and geographical land divisions. Some people want to change it to reflect modern life, while others say it represents the way in which the country was formed.
It’s hard to say whether anthems matter more or less now than they did at the time of independence, Chakraborty says, although it likely depends on the modern context.
A moment of war or crisis? People care.
A regular-season basketball game? People may care less.
Certainly, the symbolism matters, she says, even if returning O Canada to its gender-neutral lyrics doesn’t miraculously solve gender discrimination.
“Symbols have power. They carry power and they carry authority and they carry the voice of those who are in power,” she adds.
This is the moment we live in, Wright says.
“We are often distracted by the iconic, by the flag or the wording. … Those are very often distractions from much, much more difficult conversations about public policy, about meaningful community and recognizing what’s happening around us on the ground.”