Vancouver History: O Canada

Comments 4 by Rebecca Bollwitt

In just a few days Vancouver will celebrate the largest patriotic party the city has ever seen. At any given time, during those two to four weeks in February of 2010, you could catch a round of “O Canada” being belted out in arenas, at SkyTrain stations, and walking down the street.

While the tune we recite today was written by Calixa Lavallee of France for Quebec’s celebration of St. Jean Baptiste Day, and the lyrics are from a poem by R. Stanley Weir, our anthem actually has a Vancouver connection.

Proudly Canadian
Photo credit: danieldoan on Flickr

Around 1880 Calixa Lavallee composed the melody for “O Canada” as we know it today and French lyrics were written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier. Prior to that, Canada had several unofficial anthems. English-speaking Canadians would sing “God Save the King” or “The Maple Leaf Forever” while French-Canadians used “Chant National” by Routhier. English lyrics for Lavallee’s music would not come about until several candidates (all originally poems) had been considered.1

English versions of Routhier’s lyrics were translated around the turn of the century followed by poems by Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, Mercy E. Powell McCulloch (who won a Collier’s Weekly competition), and another by Ewing Buchan, who worked at the Bank of Hamilton in Vancouver. The version we sing today was penned by lawyer Robert Stanley Weir of Montreal whose poem was pared down and used in 1908. It was officially adopted in 1927 (fit for school children to sing, and made popular by soliders in World War I) and in 1980 Weir’s poem was proclaimed as Canada’s national anthem.2

Ewing Buchan’s version was considered for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927 however it didn’t get much further after Weir’s words took off. Buchan did manage to pen his “O Canada” – one of the first English versions the national anthem – in 1908 from a house in Vancouver’s West End.3 He wrote it in the parlour, accompanied by his daughter on piano. For fun, you could try singing the Made in Vancouver version by Buchan to the tune of our official anthem:

O Canada, our heritage, our love
Thy worth we praise all other lands above.
From sea to see throughout their length
From Pole to borderland,
At Britain’s side, whate’er betide
Unflinchingly we’ll stand
With hearts we sing, “God save the King”,
Guide then one Empire wide, do we implore,
And prosper Canada from shore to shore.

The house in the West End still stands today and was given the “City of Vancouver Heritage Award of Honour” in 1997. It currently operates as O Canada House, a Bed & Breakfast located at 1114 Barclay Street.

1 Canadian Heritage
2 Canadian Heritage
3 O Canada House

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4 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. Heritage Vancouver SocietyTuesday, February 8th, 2011 — 2:01pm PST

    Here’s an actual 1914 recording of an earlier version… along with a 1909 recording of the Maple Leaf Forever.

  2. Sue BigelowTuesday, February 8th, 2011 — 4:47pm PST

    The Vancouver Archives has a pamphlet from 1947 called “O, Canada: the story of the Buchan version” here: It was written by Percy Buchan, the son of Ewing Buchan.

  3. Henry LeeThursday, February 10th, 2011 — 10:29am PST

    Rebecca, thank you for the great story about our national anthem.

  4. In The Sphere: O Canada « BlueFur.comFriday, February 11th, 2011 — 12:03pm PST

    […] quite interesting about the national anthem of Canada. There was a different version created in Vancouver that was never fully adopted. The melody is the same, but the lyrics are entirely different. Try […]

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