'O Canada!' - The Story Behind the Song
Originally, the committee had intended to hold a competition, but, by January, it was decided that there was not enough time to organize one, so the Honourable Théodore Robitaille, Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, commissioned Routhier to write the words and Lavallée to compose the music. Lavellée composed many versions before the tune we now know was met with enthusiasm by his friends in the music circle. Rumour has it that, in his excitement, Lavellée rushed the manuscript to the Lieutenant Governor without even signing it.
The tune made its debut on June 24, 1880, almost 13 years after Confederation, at a banquet in the 'Pavillion des Patineurs' in Quebec City, an exciting and well-received climax to the 'Mosaïque Sur des Airs Polulaires Canadiens' which had been arranged by prominent composer and bandmaster Joseph Vézina.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and excitement was short-lived. A Quebec musician and music dealer, Arthur Lavigne, published the tune without copyright, but very few copies sold and a reprint hardly seemed necessary.
In fact, when Lavellée died in 1891, his obituary didn't even mention it among his accomplishments. In the 1887 edition of the University of Toronto song book, French Canada was represented by the songs 'Vive la Canadienne', 'A la Claire Fontaine' and 'Un Canadien Errant'. No reference was made to what would become Canada's National Anthem.
In 1901, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall (later to be King George V and Queen Mary) toured Canada. A group of school children sang the song in French to honour the visit. This was probably the first time that English Canada heard the song.
The music was published in Toronto in 1906 by Whaley and Royce. Included were the original French text and an English translation supplied by Toronto doctor Thomas Bedford Richardson. The Mendelssohn Choir perfomed the song with the English lyrics and Richardson was complimented by both Judge Routhier and the Quebec press.
In 1908, Collier's Weekly began publishing a Canadian version of its magazine, and the inugural edition held a competition for English text set to Lavellée's music. Mercy E. Powell McCulloch won the competition and her poem was printed, but the lyrics didn't catch on.
Many new versions followed, including one by poet Wilfred Campbell and Toronto critic Augustus Bridle. Other versions were written for Quebec City's tercentennary in 1908. One version became quite popular in British Columbia:
A version written by lawyer and (at the time) Recorder of the City of Montréal Robert Stanley Weir in 1908 gained the most notoriety. It was published in an official form for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927 and became the accepted version in English-speaking Canada:
Becoming a National Anthem
'O Canada' was, by far, the best-known patriotic song in Canada by the time World War I broke out in 1914. Many other songs had all but disappeared, and the once-popular 'Maple Leaf Forever' is rarely heard these days.
In 1924, the Association of Canadian Clubs voted unanimously in recommending the Weir version of the song to be used to open all Club meetings. The I.O.D.E. and the Canadian Authors Association later endorsed it, and, in 1958, the Native Sons of Canada voted in favour of it. By 1927, an official version had been authorized by the Canadian Government for singing in Canadian schools and for use at public functions.
On July 27, 1942, Canada was in the grip of yet another World War. Morale was low. Canada had survived World War I only to be dropped into a serious depression. WWII was yet another hole in a slowly-sinking boat. The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, was asked if the time was not suitable for Canada to have a national anthem, if only to help pull Canada together.
"There are times and seasons for all things and this time of war when there are other more important questions with which parliament has to deal, we might well continue to follow what has become the custom in Canada in recent years of regarding 'God Save The King' and 'O Canada' each as national anthems and entitled to similar recognition."
The statement may have been the opinion of King's government, but it was generally shared by Canadians throughout the nation.
Finally, in 1964, with Canada's 100'th birthday looming on the horizon, the government authorized a special joint committee to consider the status of 'God Save the Queen' and 'O Canada'. On January 31, 1966, Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, placed a motion on the order paper "That the government be authorized to take such steps as may be necessary to provide that 'O Canada' shall be the National Anthem of Canada while 'God Save the Queen' shall be the Royal Anthem of Canada."
On March 15, 1967, the special joint committee "unanimously recommend[ed] that the government be authorized to adopt forthwith the music for 'O Canada' composed by Calixa Lavallée as the music of the National Anthem of Canada". They also recommended that the following notation should be added to the sheet music: 'With dignity, not too slowly.'
The committee also determined that 'God Save the Queen' was in public domain as the Royal Anthem of Canada, but for 'O Canada' the committee announced that is would be "essential to take such steps as necessary to appropriate the copyright to the music providing that it shall belong to Her Majesty in right of Canada for all time. This provision would also include that no other person shall be entitled to copyright in the music or any arrangements or adaptions thereof."
Furthermore, the committee recommended further study into the lyrics. It discarded the idea of an otherwise acceptable bilingual version and suggested keeping the original French version and using the 'Weir' version with minor changes. It was suggested to replace two of the 'Stand on guard' phrases with 'From far and wide' and 'God keep our land'.
The government had no problem buying the copyright to the music. By this time, the copyright had descended to Gordon V. Thompson who was willing to sell the copyright to the government for $1. However, the heirs to Judge Weir's copyright objected to the proposed changes. Judge Weir had died in 1926 and the lyrics would not come into public domain until 1976. They refused to sell.
Then it was discovered that the Weir family may not actually have had legal grounds for the objection since it was discovered that Thompson also held a copyright to both the English lyrics and the music. The committee wanted to settle the matter peacefully, if possible, and the Weir family eventually resigned themselves to the fact that Thompson's copyright superseded their own. The government finally acquired the rights from Gordon Thompson in 1970.
On February 28, 1972, the Honourable Gérard Pelletier, Secretary of State of Canada, presented the bill to the House of Commons proposing the adoption of 'O Canada' as the National Anthem of Canada. The recommendations of the the 1967 Parliamentary study had been incorporated into the bill, but no further study was made and the bill died on the order paper.
The same bill was introduced into Parliament several times by Pelletier's successors, but each time the government failed to take any action.
Finally, on June 18, 1980, the current Secretary of State of Canada, the Honourable Francis Fox, presented a similar bill to Parliament with the addition that the House of Commons had earlier promised to proclaim 'O Canada' as Canada's national anthem as soon as possible in the year of the centenary of the first rendition in 1880.
The bill was passed unanimously by the House of Commons and accepted unanimously by the Senate on June 27, 1980. That same day, Royal assent was also given.
Canada had a National Anthem. All that remained was to make it official.
At a public ceremony held at noon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable Edward Schreyer, proclaimed the Act respecting the National Anthem of Canada. 'O Canada' became an official symbol of the nation.
Thousands of Canadians attended the ceremony. On the official platform with the Governor General were descendents of both Weir and Routhier, as well as the successor of Robitaille, the Honourable Jean-Pierre Côté.