Another Dominion Day has come and gone, but, in lieu of the shrunken and craven jubilations of Justin's reign, here's Steyn on Canada's national anthem:
A few years ago, coming back from a family trip to eastern Quebec, we passed through the small town of Kamouraska. I'd read and enjoyed the eponymous novel by Anne Hébert, which was based on real-life events, and so, after a coffee and hot rolls at one of the best bakeries I have ever visited, I insisted on dragging everyone into the Kamouraska Historical Society's small museum. The tour guide was une jolie québécoise with the usual inclinations one finds an hour out of Quebec City: The Conscription Crisis, she said, was a dagger in the heart of Quebec that had left a scar - and on the word scar (cicatrice) she lunged at me as if she was minded to return the favour. I leapt backwards, involuntarily.
Still, she was full of fascinating information. And, for a village of five hundred people, a remarkable amount of Canadian and Quebec history goes coursing through its rue principale. René Chaloult, the guy who got the fleurdelisé adopted as the Quebec flag, was from Kamouraska. He was an avowed Quebec nationalist, so our tour guide was super-enthusiastic about him. The seigneurs of Kamouraska were the Taché family, one of whose murder (by an American doctor who coveted his wife) inspired the events of Mme Hébert's novel. The most prominent member of the clan was Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché, sometime Premier of Quebec and the chap who coined the motto "Je me souviens", which today adorns every Quebec license plate - and shares with New Hampshire's "Live free or die" the distinction of being North America's most attitudinal license slogan, at least compared to lame-o plates like Maine ("Vacationland") and Ontario ("Yours to discover").
Our tour guide was ambivalent about Étienne-Paschal Taché. She liked "Je me souviens" - "I remember" - as the chippy secessionist slogan it is today. But she didn't care for it in the sense Sir Étienne-Paschal intended it: I will always remember ...the Cross and the Crown, both of which go consciously unremembered in the province today. Unlike most of the motorists driving around with his license plate motto, Taché was a fierce loyalist who memorably declared that "we will never forget our allegiance ...till the last cannon which is shot on this continent in defence of Great Britain is fired by the hand of a French-Canadian'".
Which seems somewhat unlikely these days. Sir Étienne-Paschal was an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, and the Kamouraska tour guide couldn't wrap her head around that at all.
But worse was to come. The village's most eminent resident was Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, Chief Justice of Quebec and the lyricist of "O Canada".
"Wow!" I said. "You mean 'O Canada' was written in Kamouraska?"
"Ah, oui," she mumbled bitterly, and gave an embarrassed shrug.
The evolution of "Je me souviens", from a pledge of Britannic allegiance to a cry of Quebec alienation, is as nothing compared to that of "O Canada". So before we begin, if you're thinking, "Ah-ha, this Routhier guy, he's the fellow who wrote:
Our home and native land...
Er, no. Routhier wrote:
Terre de nos aïeux...
But that's the point: "O Canada" is a French song created to answer the needs of French-Canadians. On July 1st 1867 the precise definition of "Dominion" was somewhat ambiguous, but, whatever it was, it was not in the fullest sense analogous to "nation", so the non-nation of Canada did not require a national anthem. At formal observances that first Dominion Day they played "God Save the Queen". Nevertheless, in that first flush of near-nationhood, at least one Canadian was thinking of a national song. In 1866 Alexander Muir fought with the Queen's Own Rifles against the Fenians at the Battle of Ridgeway across the Niagara from Buffalo. He returned to Toronto in patriotic mood, and found his fervour intensified by a large maple tree standing on the corner of Memory Lane and Laing Street. The song he eventually wrote waited seven years for its first public performance, in 1874 in Newmarket, in the presence of the Governor General, Lord Dufferin. Muir called it "The Maple Leaf Forever", and it was a big hit:
In days of yore
From Britain's shore
Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm
On Canada's fair domain...
Which is swell in Newmarket, Ontario, but kind of a bummer if you're in Quebec. So "The Maple Leaf Forever" never really caught on in French Canada. If the francophone's objection to "The Maple Leaf Forever" is that it's a tad anglocentric, mine is that it's full of bum rhymes ("came"/"domain", not to mention "together" and "Maple Leaf Forever").
At any rate, in 1880 the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Théodore Robitaille, and the Societé St-Jean-Baptiste commissioned a patriotic song of their own, to be sung a few weeks hence on St-Jean-Baptiste Day at of all places the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City - the very spot where dauntless Wolfe planted Britannia's flag as a dagger through the heart of Montcalm (as the Kamouraska Historical Society lady would say). M Robitaille was seeking in effect a francophone "Maple Leaf Forever" - and thus on June 24th 1880 three Quebec bands combined under the baton of Joseph Vézina in the Pavillon des Patineurs and became the first musicians ever to strike up "O Canada":
...Terre de nos aïeux
Ton front est ceint
De fleurons glorieux!
Land of our ancestors, your brow is garlanded by glorious deeds! Indeed. But few glorious deeds are, from the perspective of our time, as bizarre as the debut performance of "O Canada". Today if you sang "O Canada" on St-Jean-Baptiste Day at the Plains of Abraham you'd be lucky to get out of there alive. Since its designation as Quebec's statutory fête nationale in 1977, St-Jean-Baptiste Day has become the un-Canada Day, the national holiday for those whose nation will never be Canada. As for the fellow who commissioned it, of all the Queen's viceroys, from Belize to Gibraltar to Tuvalu, it's hard to envisage a more pitiful and shrunken office than that of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, all but entirely excluded from the public life of the province. Any Lieutenant-Governor who attempted to do as M Robitaille did and commission a patriotic song about Canada would be in the witness protection program by the end of the day.
And yet this wasn't even the first song called "O Canada" that the Societé St-Jean-Baptiste had commissioned. That honour goes to Sir George-Étienne Cartier's "Ô Canada! mon pays, mes amours", introduced in Montreal on Lower Canada's very first St-Jean-Baptiste Day in 1834:
Alas, Cartier's anthem never caught on, and half a century later the still loyalist Societé tried again. This time they turned to the aforementioned Adolphe-Basile Routhier of Kamouraska for the lyrics and, for the music, to Calixa Lavallée. The son of a blacksmith cum violin maker, M Lavallée was born in Verchères on the south shore of the St Lawrence just across from Île Bouchard. In the 1860s, while Alexander Muir was getting in the mood for "The Maple Leaf Forever" by sticking it to the Fenians across the Niagara River, Calixa Lavallée was fighting for the Union Army in the US Civil War. While living in New England, he'd enlisted as a cornet player for the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers, with whom he eventually attained the rank of lieutenant and was wounded in battle at Antietam. We've occasionally celebrated songs that are more Canadian than they might initially appear ("To Sir with Love", "My Way", "(I like New York in June) How About You?"), so it's only fair to note that Lavallée & Routhier's blockbuster is more American than you might think: Canada's national anthem was composed by an American civil war veteran - a Yank loo-tenant (in the French pronunciation) rather than a Canuck lef-tenant. In fact, on this first Dominion Day 150 years ago, M Lavallée was south of the border touring with a minstrel show.
As for Adolphe-Basile Routhier, he was a Kamouraska lawyer who had been appointed a puisne judge to the Quebec Superior Court in 1873, and a couple of years later received a papal knighthood from Pope Pius IX (almost four decades before King George V knighted him). He was a Kamouraska version of Fred Weatherly, KC, the English barrister who wrote "Danny Boy" and "Roses of Picardy": a man of law who was also a man of letters. As a matter of fact, my friend Monique Fauteux, who was kind enough to join me for our epic version of "Picardy", has a great-grandfather who wrote a rather pretty song with Routhier (although she and Sir Adolph-Basile wound up on rather different sides of Quebec's national question: when René Lévesque lost the 1980 referendum on Quebec secession, Monique was standing by his side on stage that night). So Routhier was an accomplished jurist and poet and, rather less successfully, a Conservative politician who lost two very close parliamentary races in Kamouraska. Notwithstanding the village's antipathy to his political ambitions, he loved the place. Indeed, the opening of his second chorus to "O Canada" (these days entirely unsung from one decade to the next) makes plain that he's contemplating his country from his south-shore home:
Sous l'œil de Dieu
Près du fleuve géant
Le Canadien grandit
Il est né
D'une race fière
Béni fut son berceau....
Under the eye of God, near the giant river (that's the St Lawrence), the Canadian grows up in hope. He is born of a proud race. Blessed was his cradle.
Whether or not he agreed with these sentiments, Calixa Lavallée needed the money. Blessed was his cradle; less blessed was his adulthood. He was one of those fellows who was short of dough his entire life. In June 1880 he agreed to write a patriotic composition for St-Jean-Baptiste Day mainly because he'd been stiffed over the last patriotic composition he'd written a year earlier. In May 1879 the Government of Canada had commissioned Lavallée to compose, at very short notice, a cantata to welcome the arrival, the following month, of the new Governor General, the Marquess of Lorne, and his vivacious consort, the Princess Louise, loveliest of all Queen Victoria's daughters. The composer pulled up his shirt sleeves, got to work, and a few weeks later - on June 11th 1879 - conducted it himself for Their Excellencies with a large orchestra, distinguished soloists, and a 150-voice choir. Lavallée assumed the huge costs of this endeavour, trusting that the Government that had asked him to do it would reimburse him. They didn't, and he spent the next twelve months dodging creditors.
So, when M Robitaille and the Societé St-Jean-Baptiste came calling, he needed the work: He wrote his second composition of love of country because the country had left him broke after his first one. Perhaps that's why the opening strain bears a pronounced similarity to "The March of the Priests" from Mozart's Magic Flute:
As for Routhier's words, they reflect - like Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché's "Je me souviens" - his twin allegiances to Cross and Crown:
Car ton bras sait
Il sait porter la croix!
Ton histoire est
Des plus brillants exploits
Et ta valeur
De foi trempée
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits...
For your arm knows
How to wield the sword
Knows how to bear the cross
Is an epic
Of ever more brilliant deeds
And your valour
Steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights...
It's a much more poetic lyric than "The Maple Leaf Forever", which may be why it wasn't an instant smash. But, after that premiere on St-Jean-Baptiste Day 1880, its popularity grew among French-Canadians even as anglos stuck with the dauntless Wolfe planting Britannia's flag. In 1901 the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall were touring Canada - that would be the future George V and Queen Mary, or the great-grandparents-in-law of the Duchess of Cornwall who'll be at Parliament Hill today. And at a stop in Ontario a group of schoolchildren performed "O Canada" in front of their Highnesses: for English Canadians in the crowd, that was likely the first time they had ever heard the song, a generation after its composition. Five years later, the Toronto publishers Whaley & Royce issued the first sheet music with an English lyric, by Dr Thomas Richardson. It attracted much praise from Adolph-Basile Routhier, presumably because it tracks the original French very closely:
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 glo-
-rious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth...
It didn't take, which is just as well given the apoplexy its full-throated religiosity would prompt in today's lyric-meddling legislators. A few years later Collier's Weekly ran a competition to write an English text, and a lady called Mercy McCulloch won:
Lord God of Hosts!
We now implore
Bless our dear land this day and evermore...
By now our fair Dominion had advanced to the Pacific shore. Over on the West Coast the most popular version of "O Canada" was yet another variation, by Ewing Buchan:
...at Britain's side
Unflinchingly we'll stand!
With hearts we sing
God save the King!
Guide then one Empire wide do we implore...
"With hearts we sing/God save the King"? Aside from the problems that rhyme would have caused upon the present Queen's accession, Canadians would have wound up singing a national anthem about the joys of singing an entirely different national anthem.
The lyric that eventually caught on with English Canadians was by Robert Stanley Weir. Who was he? Well, like Adolph-Basile Routhier, he was a Quebec lawyer. That's to say, "O Canada" was entirely written by Quebeckers, even the English version. Indeed, Mr Weir was, like Sir Adolph-Basile, a judge of the Exchequer Court of Canada (the forerunner of today's Federal Court), which is a remarkably specialized institution to which to grant a monopoly on authorship of "O Canada" lyrics. Weir composed his version at his beautiful country home Cedarhurst in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Where Routhier's words are heartfelt and pastoral and a personal philosphy, Weir is much more aware that he's writing a song for a nation to sing:
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...
That last line owes something to Lord Tennyson, written in 1872, when there was a modish sentiment among certain members of the London political class to cut loose Britannia's lion cubs. Tennyson contrasted metropolitan indifference with the fierce loyalty of Canada:
And that true North, whereof we lately heard
A strain to shame us "keep you to yourselves;
So loyal is too costly! friends—your love
Is but a burthen: loose the bond, and go."
Is this the tone of empire? here the faith
That made us rulers?
"True north" is a geodetic point - the five-pointed star on a US Geological Survey map - but in this case Tennyson is punning: He means the "true north" in the sense of fidelity and loyalty - indeed a north so true it shames us weaselly trimmers and equivocators in the imperial metropolis. And, whether or not the north is still true, Weir's appropriation of Tennyson planted the phrase in the Canadian iconography now and forever.
Still and all, "O Canada" remains a French song. How do we know that? Because of the one line Weir retained from Routhier's original, the very first line - because by then it was too well-known to consider changing. But the point about those first two words and first four notes is how Calixa Lavallée set Routhier's text. Lavallée was a francophone, so he pronounced the word "CanaDA" - emphasis on the third syllable, which is why the "DA" of "Canada" is on the downbeat of the second bar. Anglophones like Weir don't say "CanaDA"; they pronounce it "CANada".
But what was he to do? It was the most famous line of the song, and so firmly established in public consciousness you couldn't change it. Joni Mitchell gets closer to the stresses of anglo speech in her reference to "O Canada" in "A Case of You":
And so, even as francophones soured on "O Canada" in the latter half of the twentieth century, they bequeathed to their anglos their pronunciation of a discarded homeland.
If you object to all the plans to rewrite Weir's sexist xenophobic lyric ("our home and native land", "in all thy sons command") in recent years, well, it took the author himself almost two decades to settle on a final version: He tinkered back and forth all the way to Canada's Diamond Jubilee in 1927, when belatedly most of the version we know today got set in stone. But, although it was popular that year, it was not yet official, an instrument of state. It enjoyed the status of, say, "God Bless America" south of the border or "Land of Hope and Glory" in the Mother Country - a beloved but informal national song. If you want to pinpoint a moment when its status changed, it would be July 26th 1936 at the dedication of the Canadian war memorial at Vimy in France. The band played "God Save the King" and everybody stood, naturally. They then played "O Canada" and King Edward VIII remained standing, and at the salute - as if it were a national anthem. This clip manages to leave out that significant moment, but otherwise gives you a flavour of the occasion:
Why did His Majesty do this? Who knows? As with so much else in his life, he was likely just winging it. Three years later, his short reign was over, and his brother was on the throne. But, when George VI came to dedicate the national war memorial in Ottawa on May 21st 1939, during the playing of "O Canada" he too remained at the salute. Again, that's left out in the archive footage below, starting about thirty minutes in, but again you get a sense of the event:
From that day forth the song was accorded the respect due a national anthem even if it was not yet one officially. The road to full-blown anthemic officialdom would take another four decades, in the course of which "The Maple Leaf Forever" faded away (it's all but unknown today), "God Save the Queen" continued to be sung in Ontario and "O Canada" in Quebec, and in the Sixties Lester B Pearson eventually put his foot down and said we needed to make a choice one way or the other - which, of course, is not really the Canadian way. So "God Save the Queen" was designated the Royal Anthem and in 1980 "O Canada" became officially the National Anthem. The song was a hundred years old - or, to be more exact, a hundred years and one week old. It was introduced on St-Jean-Baptiste Day, June 24th 1880, and became Canada's national anthem on Dominion Day, July 1st 1980 - because, whatever they were singing on St-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec that year, it certainly wasn't "O Canada".
A decade earlier, the Queen of Canada had purchased the copyright from the publishers for one dollar, and her officials had then spent much of the Seventies trying to persuade the Weir family to agree to certain changes in the lyric - most notably the introduction of the words "God keep our land" before "glorious and free". It's almost impossible a mere 40 years on to imagine the Government going to bat for the Almighty, but the phrase does bring Weir's text closer to the spirit of Routhier's. Unfortunately, it established the precedent that the words of "O Canada" are endlessly mutable by the Canadian state, which is why the boors and solipsists who infest our Parliament are forever proposing further amendments, most notably replacing "in all thy sons command" with the weedy and bland "in all of us command". If the objection is that it would be nice to have a national anthem with some mention of females, wouldn't it be easier to go back to "God Save the Queen"?
Meanwhile, as in so many other aspects of Canadian life, the French version is inviolable. Sir Adolph-Basile's original sails on unblemished, mainly because no anglo MP would be impertinent enough to propose modifying it and, through its third-of-a-century of official status, most Bloquistes would have preferred to abolish it.
Yet, if the song changed, so too did those who created it. In my gloomier moments, I sometimes wonder if the post-"O Canada" lives of the men and institutions behind "O Canada" isn't just as telling about what's happened to Canadian nationalism. In 1959, the Societé St-Jean-Baptiste asked the Queen to light the main bonfire in Quebec City for that year's celebrations. A mere five years later, they were protesting the Governor General, Georges Vanier, as a traitor - "Vanier vendu" (Vanier the sell-out) and a "fou de la reine" (court jester to the Queen). They have been irredeemably anti-royalist, anti-anglo and anti-Canadian ever since.
As for Calixa Lavallée, he returned to America and took a job as choirmaster with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where he died in 1891. In his last years, the composer of our national anthem became a proponent of Canada joining the United States. So Canada's national anthem was commissioned by a group that wants to secede from the Canadian state and composed by a man who wanted to abolish the Canadian state.
Only Sir Adolph-Basile Routhier remained true to the true north. But, if the tragedy for Robert Stanley Weir's text is that too many English-Canadians reject his words, the tragedy for Routhier's text is that almost all French-Canadians reject his vision of Canada. In Britain and around the Commonwealth, the second chorus of "God Save the Queen" has fallen out of favour in our squeamish age ("Scatter her enemies... Confound their politics/Frustrate their knavish tricks"), but folks still dust it off once in a while and give it go. It would be interesting to do the same with "O Canada", and see the reaction if they were to schedule Routhier's unabashed fourth chorus at today's ceremonies:
Du trône et de l'autel
Remplis nos cœurs
De ton souffle immortel!
Parmi les races étrangères
Notre guide est la loi
Sachons être un peuple de frères
Sous le joug de la foi
Et répétons, comme nos pères
Le cri vainqueur: "Pour le Christ et le roi!"
Le cri vainqueur: "Pour le Christ et le roi!"
In other words:
Of the throne and the altar
Fill our hearts
With your immortal breath!
Among the foreign races
Our guide is the law
Tell us how to be a people of brothers
Under the yoke of faith
And repeat, like our fathers,
The battle cry: "For Christ and King!"
The battle cry: "For Christ and King!"
Stirring stuff! Just don't give it a go in the Kamouraska Historical Society museum...
~If you're a Mark Steyn Club member and you're the last stouthearted anglophone to prefer "The Maple Leaf Forever" or the last loyalist francophone to bellow "God Save the King", feel free to hit our comments section. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here. As we always say, membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges, so get to it! You can also enjoy personally autographed copies of A Song for the Season and many other Steyn books at a special member's price.
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