Anthem Anxiety

A non-standard version of “O Canada” catches me by surprise in Winnipeg, and provokes some more thought about our changed, changing, and changeable lyrics.

O Canada! Our home and native land,
True patriot love . . .

I’m primed to sing along–enthusiastically if not competently–with the young woman standing in jeans and spike-heeled boots at ice level, but the first lines of the national anthem die in my throat. Something is wrong. Nor am I the only one in Winnipeg’s MTS Centre to be thrown for a loop: others are standing with their mouths open but no sound emerging. I shut up and listen carefully.

Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix.

Oh, we’re singing it in French first. OK then. Not for nothing my attendance at my kids’ school assemblies in Saskatoon, lo these many years ago now. Their basically English school had a small French immersion program and every Friday’s assembly, every school concert, opened with us singing O Canada! twice: once in English, once in French. So it is that I am ready for the next two lines.

Ton histoire est une épopée,
Des plus brillants exploits.

But just as I launch into the next line — Et ta valeur, de foi trempée — I realize that I’m out of step again. She’s singing something else. Something that sounds a lot like, God keep our land glorious and free!

Indeed, that’s what it is. As she switches to English for the closing, the crowd, puzzled but game, joins with a flourish: O Canada, we stand on guard for thee! Once again, for good measure, and then we all sit down, relieved to be done.

Throughout the week-long Olympic curling trials in December, we sing O Canada! before every draw, three times a day. Well, we wait to see which version of the anthem the singer is going with — all English, alternating English/French/English ( what the Canada Heritage website calls the ‘non official bilingual version’), or this French/English bilingual version that is new to me — and then we sing along to the best of our abilities.

There’s been some public discussion lately about restoring the wording of Canada’s national anthem to earlier versions: some (ahem) want one free of gender references, some want one free of God references. I haven’t heard any discussion about one free of ‘native-born’ references, but stay tuned. All those years ago in Saskatoon, as I was learning the anthem in both Official Languages, a university classmate of mine was explaining to me that, as an American immigrant, she felt excluded by the ‘home and native land’ line. Canada was her home, all right, but it would never be her native land. Why couldn’t we just sing about our flag, as Americans do? I had to admit that she had a point.

But, you know, whichever words we go with for the next little while, I’d sorta like the song as a whole to make sense, to flow as if from one mind. Merging two completely different lyrics, the bilingual versions flunk this basic test. See for yourself, here.

And in any event, before the singer starts, I’d sorta appreciate a heads-up about what we’re doing.

Do people elsewhere have these problems with their anthems? Only in Canada, you say? Goodness, I hope so. It’s enough to make you want to restore matters to the status quo ante.

God save the Queen, anyone?  

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8 Responses to Anthem Anxiety

  1. Ralph says:

    Tricky business, anthems…..

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – I’m beginning to think that we should just sing nonsense syllables to a piece of music that doesn’t change, one quarter-century to the next. Maybe we need a Royal Commission! I volunteer to lead the cross-country consultations. Well, I don’t volunteer, exactly, but I state my willingness to take on this arduous task for appropriate compensation.

  2. Thom Jewell says:

    I read the first missive with interest and refused to rise to the bait. The anthem is simply a symbol and will never be perfect, in fact with our varied and colourful heritage I would suggest that no two Canadians have the same mental image when singing along. So be it – sing what you feel but quit messing with the words so we all can sing something.
    On a practical note – “sons” can be commanded – daughters not so much.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Thom – Maybe *you* can command *your* sons – me, not so much! Maybe the patriotic love of daughters is assumed, while that of sons is a matter requiring some intervention? I’m guessing not. Maybe the words don’t matter – for sure they don’t matter equally to everyone. I find it’s the music I respond to most, but listening to an arena full of people singing up to four different versions of the anthem is off-putting. Maybe the military (active and retired) have it right. Stand at attention and listen.

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