The original “O Canada” premiered at St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in Québec City, in late June 1880. The French lyrics were written by judge and author Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier (fig. 4) and the melody by Calixa Lavallée (fig.5)
The French origins of “O Canada” may surprise some, given the separatist tensions between Québec and much of English-speaking Canada; however, establishing a distinct national identity for the fledgling Canada partially through the composition and dissemination of a new national anthem meant, for French Canadians, achieving a longed-for distance from colonial Britain.
In contrast, English-speaking Canada’s de facto anthems of the same era, “The Maple Leaf Forever” (fig. 6; 7a & 7b) and “God Save the King,” were steadfastly British and celebrated the British monarchy and military victories, ultimately characterizing Canada as an English colony.
The original French lyrics reflect nineteenth-century Québec’s primarily Catholic identity. Militant, triumphant, and unabashedly Christian, the lyrics project a religious fervor unseen in the contemporary English version. In the original anthem, Canada is imagined as a valiant, protective figure wreathed with flowers, wielding a sword, and prepared to carry the cross. No mention is made of landscape or northern identity: instead, themes of glory, faith, and epic exploits take centre stage. (Fig. 8)