By Jessica Di Laurenzio
Library and Archives Canada has recently acquired the records of the Frederick Harris Music Company, a large Canadian music publisher often associated with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In the company’s early days, beginning in the 1910s, Frederick Harris rigorously fought to obtain Canadian copyright for as much music as possible. One of the songs he published around this time was the English-language version of “O Canada.” However, the “O Canada” that Harris first published was not the same song that Canadians know today as their official national anthem.
“O Canada” became the official national anthem in 1980, exactly 100 years after Calixa Lavallée first composed the music. He was commissioned to write it by Lieutenant Governor Théodore Robitaille of Quebec. Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the French lyrics at the same time, and the anthem was performed on Saint Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec City in 1880. “Chant National” (the original name for “O Canada”) was an anthem for the French-Canadian people, written in part as a response to the popularity of “God Save the Queen” in English Canada.
People in English Canada liked Lavallée’s music so much that, a couple of decades later, they decided to create their own version. However, rather than simply translating Routhier’s lyrics into English, several Anglophone lyricists wrote their own words, which helps explain why today the meaning of some of the French and English lyrics of “O Canada” differ greatly.
Original French lyrics by Routhier:
O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix!
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur, de foi trempée,
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
O Canada! 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.
English-speaking lyricists took a different approach to the lyrics, often focusing on Canada’s natural beauty instead of the country’s valour and epic history. Sometimes, their approaches were a little too similar, causing accusations of plagiarism. Robert Stanley Weir and Edward Teschemacher were two of the Anglophones who came up with their own versions, and both chose to use the phrase “our home and native land.” The similarities created copyright tension between Delmar Music Co. and Frederick Harris, the respective publishers of the Weir and Teschemacher versions, both published around 1910.
Along with Weir and Teschemacher, people across Canada came up with their own English versions of “O Canada.” By 1927, the Weir version had emerged as the most popular rendition, and was used as an official song for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. However, because so many other versions existed, it did not gain official status as the national anthem for some time.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson tried to introduce a bill to make it the official version in 1967, but it was not until the centennial anniversary of Lavallée’s music, in 1980, that “O Canada” became the country’s official national anthem. Routhier’s original lyrics from 1880 made up the French version, while Weir’s words gained official status as the English version—regardless of the fact that their meanings were so different.
Jessica Di Laurenzio is an archival assistant with Literature, Music, and Performing Arts, Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.