The Story Behind the Song: O Canada

June 21, 2023

In 1901, a group of schoolchildren sang a song for the future King George V, when he and his wife passed through Toronto. Back then, the words were completely unknown to most Canadians, but they would soon spread from coast to coast. And in time, for the rest of the world, they would become as synonymous with our country as the maple leaf.

The song was “O Canada.”

Most people don’t realize it, but our national anthem has a long and varied history. (In a way, much like our nation itself.) The song was first written in Quebec in 1880, during a time when there was no official anthem. In fact, the song had likely never been performed outside of Quebec until those children sang it twenty-one years later.

At first, the only known lyrics were in French. As a result, anglophone Canadians tended to come up with their own words. One early version began, “O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old. Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.” “O Canada! Beloved country thou,” went another version. In western Canada, “O Canada, our heritage, our love,” was particularly popular. And one poet hoped “Lord of the lands! Beneath Thy bending skies,” would catch on. (Spoiler: It did not.)

Then, in 1908, a Montreal judge named Robert Stanley Weir took a break from writing municipal rulings to try his hand at writing poetry. His effort started like this:

“O Canada, our home and native land.”

Weir had struck gold, but it took a long time for people to realize it. The government didn’t officially publish his lyrics until 1927, and by that time, they had already been changed several times by both Weir and others. Words were altered. Religious references were added, taken out, and added again. New verses were created. And of course, the song was merely one patriotic piece among many.

Then, in 1939, something changed.

It was during the visit of another King George. This was George VI. While visiting the National War Memorial in Ottawa, George stood at attention for the playing of God Save the King, as expected. But when the strains of O Canada began, the king did not move, holding his salute for the entire song. Perhaps without realizing it, he made the song official – or at least, close to it.

Suddenly, our nation had an anthem. In practice, at least.

It wasn’t until 1980 that O Canada became the national anthem by law as well as tradition. But more change was still to come. The “National Anthem Act” officially recognized two sets of lyrics – one in English and one in French. And to the English version, it added the words “from far and wide” and “God keep our land.”

Since then, O Canada has cemented its place, not just here, but abroad, too. We sing it at memorials and sporting events. In churches and schools. On holidays and at community events. But that doesn’t mean the song’s story is over. The history of our song, like the history of our country, is still being written. As you know, the lyrics were slightly revised again in 2018. Who knows what the future has in store?

Depending on who we are, where we live, when we lived, and what we believe in, different Canadians have always had different ideas about how the song should and does reflect us. As a nation. As a people. It wouldn’t surprise me if the song continues to grow and evolve as different generations add to the conversation. But one thing, I feel, has always remained the same. No matter which words our ancestors sang, which words we sing, or which words our descendants will sing, O Canada will always be an expression of love for our country. An expression of pride in “The True North, strong and free.” An expression we all share, each in our own way.

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.

I hope you enjoyed this little trip back in time. On behalf of everyone at WealthLife Capital, I wish you a safe and happy upcoming Canada Day!

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