Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sings the national anthem at the opening ceremonies for the World Skills Competition in Calgary, Sept. 1, 2009.TODD KOROL

Tinkering with the English version of O Canada has been the perennial enterprise of poets, patriots and parliamentary committees, while the original French has stood with scarcely an adjusted accent.

The federal government is threatening to add to the innumerable English versions of O Canada penned since 1880, this time in an attempt to offend less.

In fine Canadian tradition, translation seems to be at the root of the problem.

The original French words to Ô Canada were the first verse of a poem penned by the conservative, staunch Catholic, French-Canadian nationalist judge, Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier.

He was commissioned to compose the lyrics for St-Jean-Batiste day at a time when French speakers were nearly half of the Canadian population. Calixa Lavallée, among the first prominent Canadian-born musicians, put the poem to music. Mr. Routhier and at least 20 others set about writing the perfect translation. Poets and composers made most of the early attempts, while parliamentarians took over in the 1960s.

Today's English O Canada was adopted in 1980 and was based on the 1908 words written by Stephen William Weir Simpson. Neither version is identical to French Ô Canada, a flowery ode to ancestors which flowed into a subsequent verses in tribute to God and the Saint Lawrence River valley.

Few Quebeckers now identify with the song's religious fervour, steeped in Mr. Routhier's hard-line Catholicism, and would never speak its language, with Canada's symbolic brow decorated in glorious wreathes.

An academic once suggested Quebeckers have a better sense of history than English Canada and are willing to live with old symbols. There are many other reasons francophones leave the anthem alone, according to Serge Gauthier, a rare historian who has made Mr. Routhier part of his life's work.

While some Quebec sovereigntists attempted to reclaim the composers of Canada's national anthem as part of their heritage in the 1960s, the conservative, religious nationalists of the 1880s would hardly condone the leftist, secular movement of the Quiet Revolution.

Modern-day nationalist Quebeckers don't consider O Canada their song, Mr. Gauthier said. Others, who are more conservative and Catholic, don't mind dated language and old symbols.

"For some, the song is an intrinsic part of their identity, while others reject it outright. It's a dead letter and they don't care," Mr. Gauthier said. "Most young people only know it from hockey games, when half of it is sung in English."

Most Quebeckers, on some level, accept "the providential side of the survival of French in North America," Mr. Gauthier said. "So references to God in that context aren't necessarily offensive. It's an image people don't mind preserving."

The French song is 130 years old but managed to nail one major note of a politically correct, modern-day anthem. The song is about as gender neutral as French can be.

"The French version is not offensive in any sexist way," said Adèle Mercier, a philosophy professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who is pushing for change to the English version.

"The French version has a certain historical integrity. It's easily placed within the context it was written," said Prof. Mercier. "The only thing is it's a bit quaint in its enthusiasms."

The English version, which was thoroughly vetted by government committee starting in the 1960s, "is sung in current language, it's timeless, which makes the sexism of it all the more insufferable," she said.

Even the religious references in French are more acceptable, Ms. Mercier said. One line speaks vaguely of "valour steeped in faith" while another describes a Canada strong enough to bear either a sword or a cross.

"It's just a symbol for suffering. It's not God," she said.