Vancouver Was Awesome: How ‘O Canada’ was almost ours

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King Neptune and the “Jantzen Girls” in swim suits pull a Royal Life Saving float down Granville Street in Vancouver in the Dominion Day parade of 1925. (City of Vancouver Archives ref. #Port N1251)

What better way is there to celebrate Canada Day (or ‘Dominion Day’ before 1982) than to dress up like King Neptune and get a kit of swimsuit-clad pretties to tow your parade float down Granville Street? Vancouver sure partied like it was 1925 in, um… 1925.

Well, before you go out for the evening in your Maple Leaf gear (or Roman god outfit?) and launch into another hearty round of the national anthem, take a listen to an earlier version of the English lyrics and think about how you would like to sing it.

Earlier today, Heritage Vancouver tweeted a link to the ‘O Canada’ anthem in English, as it sounded in the ‘Weir version’ of 1908. The non-profit history group digitized a 1914 Edison cylinder recording of ‘O Canada’ sung with the nature-inspired lyrics penned by a Montrealer — Robert Stanley Weir:

Listen now: O Canada in 1914 (Weir version) (link opens in new window)

O Canada, where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.
Thou art the land, O Canada,
From East to Western sea,
The land of hope for all who toil,
The land of liberty.

As Heritage Vancouver points out with a link to vancouverhistory.ca, the anthem many of us remember from so many riveting elementary school assemblies could have been penned by a Vancouverite, if history had gone a little differently.

In 1908, Ewing Buchan, a bank manager who lived at 1114 Barclay Street (still standing!), received a copy of the sheet music of the French Chant Nationale of 1875 from his brother, who was stationed at a garrison in Quebec. Buchan enjoyed singing the tune at home as his daughter accompanied him on the piano, but didn’t like the English translation of the lyrics that he had been provided:

O Canada! 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 glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall

Buchan instead came up with a very Dominion-inspired version, which quickly grew in popularity and was apparently the favourite version of Prime Minister MacKenzie King when he heard it sung at Vancouver Board of Trade meeting during a trip out west. (By the way, Buchan’s former home in Vancouver is known today as the ‘O Canada House.’)

The Buchan version goes:

O Canada, our heritage, our love
Thy worth we praise all other lands above
From sea to sea, throughout thy length,
From pole to borderland
At Britain’s side, whate’er betide,
Unflinchingly we’ll stand.
With heart we sing, “God Save the King”
“Guide thou the Empire wide,” do we implore
“And prosper Canada from shore to shore.”

Now, as much as I love to support Vancouver arts and culture, my preference in this case lies with the Montrealers’ version. At one time, much of the country felt the same way.

As Chuck Davis wrote in his History of Vancouver works, the Vancouver-Buchan version battled with the Montreal-Weir version for a few years until a fierce debate erupted in print in the 1920s.

Heritage Canada says that the Weir version became generally-accepted after it was published in booklet for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927.  More edits of Weir’s poem were made here-and-there until our current version was frozen into place in 1980:

O Canada! 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!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free !
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Is anyone else thinking it’s maybe time for another revision?

That we can bring a version of the anthem lyrics back to this sea?

That maybe a Vancouverite could scribe some more modern, perhaps multilingual, and increasingly-inclusive lyrics?

Leave your ideas in the comments!