Full history of “O Canada”

Some think of Calixa Lavallée as an obscure music teacher who improvised a patriotic song in a moment of inspiration, but the truth is quite different.

Known as “Canada’s national musician”, Calixa Lavallée was asked to compose the music for a poem written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song was to be performed in honour of the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français (National Congress of French Canadian), on June 24, 1880, at the same time as the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations.

Government officials had first thought of holding a competition for a national hymn, but by January the committee in charge decided there was not enough time. So the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, the Honourable Théodore Robitaille, commissioned Judge Routhier to write a hymn and Lavallée to compose the music.

Lavallée made a number of drafts before the song we know today was greeted with enthusiasm by his musical friends. It is said that in his excitement, Lavallée rushed to show his music to the Lieutenant‑Governor without even stopping to sign the manuscript.

The first performance took place on June 24, 1880, at a banquet in the Pavillon des Patineurs, in the City of Québec. It was a highlight in the “Mosaïque sur des airs populaires canadiens ” arranged by a prominent composer and bandmaster, Joseph Vézina.

Although this first rendition of “O Canada” – with Routhier's French words – was well received, it does not seem to have made a lasting impression. Arthur Lavigne, a Quebec musician and music dealer, published it without copyright but there was no rush to reprint. Lavallée’s obituary in 1891 does not mention it among his accomplishments, nor does a biography of Judge Routhier published in 1898.

English Canada probably first heard “O Canada” when schoolchildren sang it for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall (later King George V and Queen Mary) when they toured Canada in 1901. Five years later, the Toronto company Whaley and Royce published the music with the French text and a translation into English by Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson. Around this time, the Mendelssohn Choir used Richardson’s lyrics in one of their performances, and Judge Routhier and the French press complimented the author.

Richardson’s version:

“O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old

Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.

Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross

Thy children own their birth

No stains thy glorious annals gloss

Since valour shield thy hearth.

Almighty God! On thee we call

Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,

Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.”

In 1908, Collier’s Weekly magazine held a competition to write new English lyrics for “O Canada”. The competition was won by Mercy E. Powell McCulloch, but her version never took.

McCulloch’s version:

“O Canada! in praise of thee we sing;

From echoing hills our anthems proudly ring.

With fertile plains and mountains grand

With lakes and rivers clear,

Eternal beauty, thos dost stand

Throughout the changing year.

Lord God of Hosts! We now implore

Bless our dear land this day and evermore,

Bless our dear land this day and evermore.”

Since then, many English versions have been written for “O Canada”. The poet Wilfred Campbell wrote one, as did Augustus Bridle, a Toronto critic. Some were written for the 1908 Tercentenary of the City of Québec.

A version written by Ewing Buchan became the most popular patriotic song on the West Coast.

Buchan’s version:

“O Canada, our heritage, our love

Thy worth we praise all other lands above.

From sea to sea throughout their length

From Pole to borderland,

At Britain’s side, whate’er betide

Unflinchingly we’ll stand

With hearts we sing, “God save the King”,

Guide then one Empire wide, do we implore,

And prosper Canada from shore to shore.”

The most popular version was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer and Recorder of the City of Montréal. A slightly modified version of the 1908 poem was published in an official form for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927 and gradually became the most widely accepted and performed version of this song in English speaking Canada. The French lyrics of 1880 remain unchanged.

Following other minor changes, the first verse of Weir’s poem was proclaimed as Canada’s national anthem when Parliament passed the National Anthem Act, in 1980:

“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.”

Find out more about the people behind our anthem.

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