Dazzling in a sparkling Canadian-red gown, Ruth Ann Onley belted out the last lines of the ode to Canada written lovingly by her husband, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, to a packed stadium at a First World War 100th anniversary celebration Thursday.
Many audience members at University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium leapt to their feet as she ended her performance alongside the Canadian Children’s Opera Co., part of In Memoriam, a U of T multimedia event to mark the anniversary.
It was just Ms. Onley’s fourth public performance of We Are the People of the Maple Leaf, a salute to Canada’s military history the Onleys hope will be sung by generations of Canadians to come.
The lyrics declare: “We are the people of the Maple Leaf. Proud to defend our home in war and peace; Guardians of land, of tree, of sky and sea; We are the people of the Maple Leaf.”
The ceremony also included performances by the Massed Band of the Canadian Armed Forces and speeches by University of Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan and General Thomas Lawson, chief of the defence staff.
“We often talked about how there’s a lack of patriotic songs in Canada,” Mr. Onley said hours before the event in his suite at Queen’s Park. “I hope [Canadians] come away with a sense of pride and a sense of inspiration about the country” after hearing the song, he said.
Mr. Onley will be stepping down as lieutenant-governor on Sept. 23, when the job passes to Elizabeth Dowdeswell.
The lyrics of his song are set to the tune of Highland Cathedral, a well-known Scottish composition the Onleys first heard performed by bagpipers at a 2011 Opening of the Courts ceremony, an annual fall ceremony marking the opening of judicial courts.
“We were both practically moved to tears,” Mr. Onley said. “I turned to Ruth and I said, ‘That is so patriotic, that music.’”
When he was unable to find lyrics to the enchanting melody, aside from rugby chants invented in Scottish bars, Mr. Onley began composing his own lyrics to honour Canada.
Several months later, the song was ready, with Ms. Onley, a professional singer, always the intended vocalist.
It begins commemorating Canada’s indigenous populations, the “original people of the Maple Leaf,” according to Mr. Onley, before saluting early settlers and then Canadian troops who have fought in several wars such as the War of 1812, the First and Second World Wars and the war in Afghanistan.
“Our parents, who fought in World War Two, won’t talk much because it’s such a sad, tragic, difficult thing,” Ms. Onley said. “It was that whole focus though, more on the military and the serving and giving for your country and dying for your country, is what we took out of it.”
The song has been evolving since then, and the couple enlisted one of their favourite composers, Robert Carli, who worked on the music for TV’s Murdoch Mysteries, to compose music for the tune with a symphony orchestra rather than bagpipes and record it at CBC studios in front of an audience.
“Every time that Ruth has performed it, there’s been a standing ovation,” Mr. Onley said. “That really anchored it in our minds that we were really onto something.”
He and his wife obtained rights for the Highland Cathedral tune from Universal Music and are negotiating with a record company to release a shorter version of the song, with more of a cultural than military focus.
“I could hear it out in a hockey arena,” Ms. Onley said. “I think it’s just that line, ‘We are the people of the Maple Leaf.’ I think it just rings.”