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In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

National anthems are often a bit gauche, in what they say or how they say it. Most were written when imperialism was cool, and before women could vote. Women in Canada were not even "persons" under the law when the third line of the English version of O Canada was tweaked to read, "True patriot love in all thy sons command."

Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger set out this week to neutralize that gender-biased line and, with a Liberal majority in government, may succeed where a similar motion failed in 2010. But even with new words, there's a lot that's still dodgy about our national ditty and how it came to be.

For one thing, it was written by a musician who spent most of his early career performing in blackface. That's right: Calixa Lavallée, composer of O Canada, served for a dozen years as bandsman and music director for several American minstrel shows. He put on black makeup every night and shared the stage with other white specialists in "Ethiopian" entertainments.

He also campaigned vigorously against Confederation, and believed that francophone Canadians would be better off as part of the American republic than in a British colony. According to his latest biographer, he may even have intended O Canada as a veiled send-up of the solemn national occasion for which it was commissioned.

Brian Thompson's Anthems and Minstrel Shows: The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842 - 1891 fills the gaps in Lavallée's previous biographies, which were sketchy about what he did during the first half of his 21 years in the United States. Minstrelsy isn't even mentioned in his entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography or the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. The composer was careful to hide his blackface past in Canada, though not, Thompson says, because of any moral qualms. Minstrel shows were a hot form of entertainment in the mid-19th century, but not a good CV item for a musician keen to be known for his concert pieces and operas.

Even on that front, Lavallée was comfortable with racial caricature. Three years after writing the music for O Canada, he produced TIQ (The Indian Question Settled at Last), a "melodramatic musical satire." In an excerpt published in Thompson's book, a chorus of Sioux braves sing: "We always keep our hatchets high / For that is what we swear by," to the kind of thumping, Injun-music accompaniment that later became a Hollywood cliché. A stage direction notes that the braves "dance around captives and blow on fish horns."

Lavallée ended his first American sojourn in 1863, when he returned to Montreal and became an activist in the fight against plans for Confederation. When the deal was settled two years later, he published, under a pseudonym, a Confederation Quadrille, with a satirical cover illustration that showed francophones in chains.

Following that disappointment, he spent another six years with minstrel troupes, including a New York company that one reviewer praised for its "strong hold on the affections of lovers of the blackface art." After a couple of years in Paris, Lavallée returned to Canada to raise the tone of musical life in Montreal. He introduced recent works by the likes of Schumann and Weber, produced operas and lobbied unsuccessfully for a state-subsidized conservatory.

In 1880, he was asked to write a "national song" for the first Congrès catholique canadien français in Quebec City. The text would be provided by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, president of the organizing committee, who, in his opening address, reaffirmed the providential nature of British dominion, and declared that "French-Canadian nationality and the Catholic religion must remain inseparably united."

The tune Lavallée offered for this pious gathering bore some resemblance to the March of the Priests from Mozart's The Magic Flute, which, in the opera, is played during a scene of masonic pomp. O Canada was to be premiered after a solemn mass at the Plains of Abraham, in the presence of the Governor-General, but was yanked at the last minute "due to an unfortunate misunderstanding." Thompson speculates that someone in the congress noticed the Magic Flute parallel, and suspected that Lavallée was equating the complacently colonized Catholic priests with Mozart's fairy-tale mysticism.

That doesn't seem a stretch when you consider Restons français, a martial song Lavallée wrote in 1886. "When the oppressor comes to forge our chains," say the lyrics by poet Rémi Tremblay, "proud of the blood that runs in our veins / we remain French." Who could that oppressor be but the British, who brokered Confederation; or the Canadian government, which had just hanged Louis Riel; or the various forces threatening French language and culture on both sides of the border?

Lavallée's own primary sense of nationality was that of a francophone in North America, who felt less connected to Canadians in Ottawa or Winnipeg than to the nearly one million French Canadians who had migrated to the mill towns of New England. Annexation by the U.S. appealed to him, because it would have reunited the Québecois with that community.

O Canada didn't begin to catch on as a Canadian national song till 25 years after Lavallée's death, when English lyrics were added by Robert Stanley Weir. The anthem gave Lavallée a posthumous fame that peaked in 1933, when his remains were pulled from a Boston graveyard and reinterred in Montreal. His homecoming memorial was even more lavish than the one given last week to René Angélil.

If he were alive today, Lavallée might have reacted with horrified laughter at his song's standing as a symbol of Confederation. The object of his true patriot love was much closer to that of René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau.

Editor's note: A previous headline of this artiicle called Mauril Bélanger a Quebec MP. In fact, he is an Ottawa MP.

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