The original French lyrics of “O Canada” were written in 1880 as a patriotic poem by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a judge; it was set to music by a prominent French-Canadian composer of the time, Calixa Lavallée and was sung for the first time on June 24 of that year at a banquet in the Pavillion des Patineurs in Quebec City.
When Routhier’s lyrics were first published in Toronto, a doctor named Thomas Bedford Richardson translated the words of the first and fourth verses into English and to fit the melody. Two years later, the first edition of the Canadian version of Collier’s Weekly held a competition to write English lyrics to the song. Mercy E. Powell McCulloch won the competition with her entry. The words were rewritten again and again, but one version gained the most popularity. It was written by Montreal lawyer Robert Stanley Weir, and only slightly differs from the English version used today. (Note that while Richardson’s lyrics are meant to be a somewhat direct translation of the French lyrics into English, Powell McCulloch’s and Weir’s lyrics (the latter of which are nearly identical to the current lyrics) are completely different in meaning from the original French lyrics. The lyrics to the right give the official lyrics in both English and French, as well as the official translation of the French lyrics.)
The anthem’s English lyrics were performed for Edward VIII in 1936 and King George VI in 1939 on their visits to Canada, and the Kings saluted the song as if it was the national anthem. It then started to be used more frequently as an unofficial anthem and in 1967 it was approved by Parliament as the national anthem, and was made official by the National Anthem Act of 1980. The national anthem officially only consists of one verse in each language, yet the original poems of both Routhier and Weir have four verses.
Since the adoption of the anthem, there has been occassional attempts to once more slightly alter the English lyrics of the national anthem, to change the gender-specificness of the phrase “in all thy sons command”, or to alter the phrase “our home and native land” to reflect the new immigrants of the country, or to remove the reference to God. In 2018 the phrase “in all thy sons command” was changed to “in all of us command”, becoming part of the anthem with royal assent granted on February 7 of that year. This did not affect the French lyrics, as they are not a direct translation.
Before the official adoption of “O Canada” in 1980, the official national anthem of Canada was “God Save the Queen”, yet “O Canada” was used on an unofficial basis, as well as the patriotic song “The Maple Leaf Forever”. “God Save the Queen” remains the royal anthem of Canada.
Special thanks to: Zachary Harden for the sheet music.