O Canada

Watching the opening ceremonies of a Toronto Maple Leafs game last night reminded me of something that might end up being Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s most lasting legacy: a slight change in the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem to make it less sexist. The second line used to be “True patriot love in all thy sons command”; as of February of this year it is “True patriot love in all of us command.” I don’t have anything against this change on principle, although the new version is less poetic and will take some getting used to.

But I’m sure I will get used to it, because this is not the first time that such change has occurred. The English lyrics to “O Canada” were only officially standardized in 1980, when I was in grade four. Prior to that time there were a number of versions sung throughout the land. The one we sang went like this:

O Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command
With glowing hearts we see thee rise
The true north strong and free
And stand on guard, O Canada
We stand on guard for thee
O Canada, glorious and free
We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee

The version sung by Roger Doucet prior to Montreal Canadiens’ games featured “We stand on guard for rights and liberty” as the penultimate line. We would sometimes sing this at school to show what great hockey fans we were.

The version unveiled in 1980 goes like this. Changes are boldfaced.

O Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons 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
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee

This version is better insofar as it has fewer redundancies, but by introducing a reference to “God,” it guaranteed resentment in certain quarters. And although they’ve dropped “all thy sons,” we still have the word “native,” which is now claimed as exclusive property by Canada’s First Nations people – and is alienating to immigrants anyway. So the national anthem is still slightly dodgy.

Still, though – “True patriot love“! “With glowing hearts“! “True north strong and free“! “Stand on guard for thee“! These expressions have entered the Canadian vernacular and echo down the years. I wipe away a tear just contemplating them.

But there is a further detail that needs to be mentioned. As you may be aware, Canada is officially bilingual, with a full quarter of its population speaking French as its native tongue. This is the Fundamental Divide in Canadian politics and society. The original lyrics to “O Canada” were composed in French, for a Francophone holiday – la fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste – in 1880. English lyrics were published in 1906, and the song eventually became the de facto Canadian national anthem (I guess the centennial of the song in 1980 prompted the government to make it official). So it turns out that, like the beaver and the maple leaf, the national anthem was a Francophone thing that the Anglos simply appropriated, forcing the Québécois to find substitutes (the fleur de lys and “Gens du pays” come to mind).

The fact that the original French lyrics of “O Canada” were not translated directly into English is supposedly symbolic of how divided the country is. Here is what the French lyrics mean:

O Canada! Land of our ancestors
Your head is crowned with glorious jewels
Because your arm knows how to carry the sword
It knows how to carry the cross
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant exploits
And your valor, steeped in faith
Will protect our hearths and our rights
Will protect our hearths and our rights

These lyrics really illustrate the song’s Francophone origin. You can see the Catholic (cross, faith) and ethnic-nationalist (ancestors, hearths) content in it – whereas the English is a little more deist and geographical.

But I do think that national symbols (anthems, flags, etc.) should actually be saved for when national teams play other national teams, and shouldn’t appear before mere professional games.

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