Newly born countries rarely dawdle when it comes time to adopt new patriotic symbols. No sooner has independence been declared than a new flag is run up the pole, a new coat of arms appears on official letterhead, and a stirring national anthem is commissioned.

When revolution toppled the monarchy in France in the 1790s, a new tricolored banner quickly replaced the old Bourbon fleur-de-lis flag and citizens began singing “La Marseillaise,” a catchy marching tune whose words encourage Frenchmen to spill the impure blood of their enemies. When a multi-racial Republic of South Africa appeared after the end of apartheid, a new flag and coat of arms swiftly appeared as well, along with the gorgeous anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”

Strangely, it took Canada over 100 years before it officially adopted its national anthem.

“O Canada” was written in 1880 to mark the celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, a festival beloved by French Canadians since the 17th century. The music for “la chant national” was composed by Calixa Lavallée, a well-traveled musician who had fought for the Union side in the American Civil War. The song’s lyrics, originally in French, were written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a Quebec judge and poet. The words praise the history of the Quebecois people whose arms know how to wield both the sword and the cross.

Although there were a number of attempts to produce an English-language version of the anthem, they did not really catch on with Anglophone Canadians who much preferred to belt out “God Save the Queen” or “The Maple Leaf Forever,” whose lyrics praise the English conquest of Quebec in the first verse, note battles against Americans in the second verse, and boast about how wide the country is in the third stanza.

Neither of these was likely to find favor with French speakers, so the arrival in 1908 of a treatment of “O Canada” by Robert Stanley Weir was welcomed by those who wanted a proud but not chauvinistic national anthem. Weir was a lawyer and poet who wrote his version to honor the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City. It was an entirely new set of lyrics and not a translation of Routhier’s words.

Songs with martial imagery are quite common in the anthem-writing business. The American “Star-Bangled Banner” speaks of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; “La Marseillaise,” as we have seen, is particularly blood-soaked; and Mexicans sing out “at the cry of war / Make ready the steel and the bridle / And let the earth tremble at its centers / At the resounding roar of the cannon.”

Robert Stanley Weir (1856–1926) was a Canadian judge and poet most famous for writing the English lyrics to "O Canada.”  (Public Domain)
Robert Stanley Weir (1856–1926) was a Canadian judge and poet most famous for writing the English lyrics to “O Canada.” (Public Domain)
In contrast, the lyrics of Weir’s “O Canada” are comparatively mild—we merely promise to stand on guard rather than slay tyrants. Later verses praise the landscape, invoke the rise of “stalwart sons and gentle maidens,” and implore God’s help as we wait for “the Better Day.”

It was not until our nation’s centennial year of 1967 that politicians decided that “O Canada” might serve as an official anthem. A parliamentary committee recommended that the original French lyrics be adopted but that some tinkering with Weir’s words was in order. As there was some doubt about the copyright of the English text, no definitive action was taken at that time. It was not until 1980 (a century after its original composition) that the choice of “O Canada” was made official. On July 1 of that year, in a ceremony attended by the descendants of Routhier and Weir, Gov. Gen. Edward Schreyer proclaimed “O Canada” the authorized national anthem of Canada.

But this being Canada, where taking offense is a national sport, arguments did not stop there. In June 1990, the Toronto City Council voted to demand that the federal government alter the wording “our home and native land” to “our home and cherished land” (to be sensitive to the feelings of immigrant Canadians), and that the phrase “ in all thy sons command” be changed to “in all of us command” to be gender-inclusive. Those in favor of the latter amendment noted that Weir’s original text was, in fact, “true patriot love thou dost in us command.” This request was ignored.

Undaunted, in 2002 a Senate bill to remove the reference to “sons” died on the order paper, and objections by secularists to the religious content in both the French and English lyrics were also in vain. After years of continued debate, however, the gender-inclusive side finally won and in 2018 the current words of the English version were settled on.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.