Press-Republican

Columns

June 29, 2012

O Canada, a bilingual duet

Americans can thank their one and only war with Canada for inspiring the author of the U.S. national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. Had not Francis Scott Key witnessed the British navy’s bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1914, during the War of 1812, who knows what Americans would be singing at the opening of sports events and the like?

Here in Canada, owing to the fact the country is effectively two nations under God or other entity, the national anthem is actually two songs — one in English, one in French — sung to the same tune.

The whole dual nation thing comes up at this time of year, notably in Quebec, because of the timing of the two national holidays. Quebec marks la fete nationale on June 24, the traditional date of the religious feast saluting St. Jean Baptiste, the patron saint of the French-founded province. Once upon a time, villages would light bonfires all along the St. Lawrence River to mark the occasion.

One week later comes Canada Day on July 1, which, though there are modest celebrations in Quebec — even more modest of late due to the federal government’s cuts to celebration budgets — is a much bigger deal outside the province.

Still, as typical Canadian historical weirdness would have it, Canada’s national anthem sprung from a celebration of French-Canadian nationalism. Back in 1880, the leading organization for the promotion of French-Canadian rights was assembling a big convention as a show of franco force. It was to be timed with the annual St. Jean Baptiste celebration on June 24.

(One of the themes of the gathering was stemming “la grande hemmoragie,” the exodus of French-Canadians to the United States in search of jobs and opportunity, drawing up to one million from the mid-1800s to then 1930s.)

Organizers called upon Adolphe Routhier, a local judge with a flair for poetry, and Calixa Lavallee, a globe-trotting musician and composer (who served in the Union army and claimed to have been wounded at Antietam) to write an anthem for French-Canadians to be debuted during the event.

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