The Canadian national anthem, brilliantly entitled O Canada, is a nesting family of metaphors for the failure of this heap. The song began life as a French national song. indeed, the Governor-General of Quebec, Théodore Robitaille commissioned the music and lyrics for Quebec’s own national holiday, le Jour de St. Jean-Baptiste. The lyrics of the original song are…kind of badass, actually:
Land of our ancestors
Glorious deeds circle your brow
For your arm knows how to wield the sword
Your arm knows how to carry the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of brilliant deeds
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights,
Will protect our homes and our rights.
What I love about the French version is that the song isn’t an admonishment of the individual to do something for Canada but rather a celebration of Canadian accomplishments. I mean, I take issue with “Your history is an epic of brilliant deeds”, given that Canada’s brilliant deeds consist of sitting like a puerile infant in its own waste, but it’s an anthem! It tells me why I should think that Canada is fucking badass instead of demanding that I come to the defense of this ruddy rank turd (which is, as we’ll see, what the English lyrics whinged their way into being). Thanks for the lyrics, Adolphe-Basile Routhier!
Though its origin in French is muddy and controversy swirls over exactly how the committee struck by Robitaille (which was struck only when it became apparent that there was not enough time for the Quebec-wide contest that Robitaille actually wanted) came to produce this piece of music, its reception in Quebec was almost immediately positive. The song came almost immediately into its own as a counterpoint to English Canada’s insistence on God Save the Queen and the even more insultingly British the Maple Leaf Forever, and the split of national anthems came to symbolize the schismic pile of puke that Canada was doomed to be even at the very beginning.
As English Canada heard this fancy new tune that actually reflected Canadian rather than British realities they slowly started coming around to the idea that maybe they should sing about Canada instead of singing about a rock 3000+ miles away that long since stopped caring about Canada. Various cakers had a crack at creating English lyrics to the song. Thomas Richardson tried, and his version was sung for some royals that I don’t care about in 1901, but it failed to catch on because it was a literal translation that didn’t fit the song very well.
Collier’s Weekly magazine was the next to try at finding English lyrics that don’t suck, and they settled on the phrasings of one Mrs. Mercy E. Powell McCulloch. When that failed to catch on Ewing Buchan wrote the most truly wretched version of the anthem I have ever seen, which once again fixated on the uncaring British with a kind of slavish love reminiscent of creepy horse girls in elementary school:
O Canada, our heritage, our love
Thy worth we praise all other lands above.
From sea to see 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.
But it takes a Quebecker to have any kind of sizzle at national identity, and the Montreal municipal theorist (and later judge) Robert Weir would write the backbone of the contemporary English version of the song in 1908. While people objected to one of the many lines that I also find objectionable (the “stand on guard for thee” line, which as I alluded to earlier gives the song that whinging exhortative quality that so brilliantly reflects the shitty attitudes of English Canada writ large) from the get-go, revisions were instead made to add “in all our son’s command” and to make minor grammatical changes, the upshot of which being that the song grew into the ponderous, ill-fitting mish-mash that it is today.
Having found a generally, broadly-acceptable anthem by the 1920s, Canada would perform at her optimal speed by waiting for more than 60 years before making the anthem officially the anthem. And in our next post I’ll be riffing on the piece of shit line-by-line. Stay tuned!