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Stampede officials scramble to find agreeable version of O Canada

Cowboys hold their hats to their hearts as the national anthem is played before the start of the rodeo at the Calgary Stampede on July 10, 2012.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

It was a short-lived linguistic showdown.

To commemorate the centennial of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, Calgary Stampede officials ordered a "stylized" version of O Canada – recorded in both official languages – to play before the nightly chuckwagon races during the 10-day extravaganza.

But after the Stampede kicked off last Friday, some rodeo fans complained that they couldn't sing along with the unfamiliar arrangement, and officials scurried the choir into the studio the next day to record a more traditional version of the national anthem – but left out the French lyrics.

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Doug Fraser, the Stampede official first out of the chutes on the issue, explained that the "overwhelming" response from spectators gave rise to the more singable recording.

"Our community said they wanted to be able to show their patriotism during the anthem, and that's why we made the decision to go back to the English version," he told a local newspaper.

The fallout was instant. Comments on the street and online ranged from anger to humour. By Tuesday morning, the Stampede issued a "clarification" and had rushed the choir back into the studio to record the "traditionally arranged bilingual version" in time for that evening's grandstand performance.

"There was no reason for us to not do a bilingual version other than logistics," said Stampede spokesman Kurt Kadatz. He explained that the second version was recorded on a busy day, and there was no time to include the French.

"We've been doing a bilingual version for a long time," he added. "It would be kind of weird for us to do a conscious decision to do an English-only [version] two days into the Stampede."

Some politicians steered clear of the issue.

"I don't think it's something for us to weigh in on," said Daorcey LeBray, a spokesman for Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Mr. Nenshi rode a horse in the annual Stampede parade.

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The federal government designated the Stampede as a national historic event over the weekend, but James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, didn't want to talk about the ruckus over O Canada.

"The Stampede is a privately run event and makes its own decisions on how to play our national anthem," said the minister's spokesman, James Maunder.

But it didn't stop the stampede to the Twitterverse to offer opinions.

Alex McBrien of Calgary called it "very un-Canadian" to ditch the French verses. Montreal Gazette columnist Peggy Curran said the Stampede was "giving in to the redneck fringe."

At first, Michel Berdnikoff, president of the Calgary chapter of L'association canadienne-française de l'Alberta or ACFA, said he thought the unilingual anthem debate would turn into an "explosive issue." Alberta has about 225,000 French speakers, an estimated 90,000 in Calgary.

But then he got a call from the Stampede. It was nothing more than a "whoopsie," Mr. Berdnikoff said.

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"They recognized there was a slip and in a very honourable way, they are working at fixing it."

And fix it they did. Rodeo attendees applauded and raised their cowboy hats in the air after the anthem - French verses included - Tuesday night.

Both the Calgary Stampeders football team and the Calgary Flames hockey franchise feature singers belting out English-only anthems before games, unless they are taking on rivals from Montreal.

During the 2002 Grey Cup held in Edmonton, Montreal's mayor complained about the plan to ditch the bilingual version of O Canada when the Eskimos faced off against the Alouettes, and organizers made a quick about-face.

More than 1.2 million visitors from around the world are expected to take in the Stampede. Attendance is on pace to break records.

"We know that we're a national icon and it's the right thing to do is to have a bilingual anthem," Mr. Kadatz said. "We appreciate the patience of guests as we work through this and we certainly did not mean to offend anyone and we're absolutely sorry if we did."

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