Press-Republican

June 29, 2012

O Canada, a bilingual duet

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch
Press-Republican

---- — 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.

So, at a huge gala banquet held at the spectacular skating pavilion on the historic (and symbolic) Plains of Abraham, the song had its world premiere, to reportedly rousing applause. O Canada, though, was soon forgotten and neither Routhier nor Lavallee’s obituaries mention the authorship of what was to become Canada’s national anthem.

The French lyrics Routhier penned are steeped in the blend of religious patriotic imagery that reflected the role the Roman Catholic church played in the survival of the French-Canadian fact in North America. In particular, the couplet: “As is thy arm ready to wield the sword, So also is it ready to carry the cross.”

O Canada surfaced as a potential national anthem early in the 20th century when Montreal lawyer Robert Stanley Weir wrote lyrics more appropriate to the English-speaking population. Thus, the somewhat militarized English version — “stand on guard,” “son’s command,” “patriot love” — saw the light of day in 1908.

It was not until 1980, the centennial of its first singing, that the federal government designated O Canada as the official national anthem. Until that point, it was a bit of a free-for-all. I remember singing God Save the Queen at the beginning of the day when I was in grade school. Other times it was The Maple Leaf Forever.

The lyrics to O Canada have been modified over the years to reduce repetition and sound more inclusive. Two years ago, the federal government proposed a full review of the anthem’s wording, but retreated in the face of vociferous public protest. It may be flawed, but Canadians like O Canada the way it is.

And as for the inconvenient fact of having both an official French and English version of the national anthem? The solution is an official bilingual version of the song, with the four-line middle section given over to the French lyrics. This is the one sung at official national ceremonies or hockey games in Montreal.

Whether one prefers a brow “wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers” or “glowing hearts rising,” it’s still O Canada.