Saturday, June 24, 2023

The First Performance of "O Canada"

By Terrie Todd

As a Canadian kid attending a Christian high school in South Dakota in the 1970s, I was a bit of an anomaly. Although I knew all the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, none of my friends knew my national anthem. At least one thought she did. My good pal, Pat, in my honor, would go about singing, “O Canada, O Canada” to the tune of O Christmas Tree. Luckily for her, I had a sense of humor. Or, as we spell it, humour.

In a way, it’s no wonder few Americans can sing O Canada. While the tune might be familiar from sporting events, the lyrics have changed so often that even we Canucks have trouble keeping up. The deeper I dug, the more versions I found. I wonder if Canada might hold a world record for changes to its national anthem, especially given that we didn’t officially have one until 1980.

In the 1800s, English-speaking Canada was content with God Save the King and The Maple Leaf Forever as our patriotic songs. It was the French Canadians who desired an anthem. Between 1829 and 1880, so many songs had been introduced—all with mixed reviews—that it was decided a competition should be held. In the end, however, time was of the essence in order to have a song ready for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste festivities in June in Québec City. So, on March 15, 1880, a music committee made up of 23 members was appointed to produce a song. Among them was Calixa Lavallée, who was eventually credited with the composition of the music to O Canada. Adolphe-Basile Routhier composed the French lyrics, and it was first performed on June 24, 1880, under the title “Chant national,” at a banquet at the skaters' pavilion in Québec City, attended by more than 500 distinguished guests. The next day, it was repeated at a large reception for 6,000 in the gardens of Spencer Wood. Six concert bands played the song twice, and the words were sung by a full choir. 

Calixa Lavallée (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-70448)

Québec lieutenant-governor Théodore Robitaille appeared on the cover of the first edition of the words and music to "O Canada." (courtesy Musee du Seminaire de Quebec)

So why did it take a century to become Canada’s official national anthem?

Beginning in 1901, various English versions began to crop up. The Richardson version, a literal translation from the French, was sung before King George V. In 1909, the McCulloch version, written by Mrs. Mercy E. Powell McCulloch, whose contest submission won over 350 other participants, was introduced. This was followed by versions by poet Wilfred Campbell, by the critic Augustus Bridle, and by a Vancouver bank manager named Ewing Buchan.

The English version that became most widely used and most closely resembles today’s version was that by Robert Stanley Weir. Even then, revisions were made in 1913, 1914, 1916, 1967, and 2018—the latter to make it gender-inclusive. (“In all of us command” instead of “In all thy sons command.”) 

Robert Stanley Weir in a 1905 photo. (Simpson Collection/Courtesy Golf Canada)

Although schools, sports, and community events had already been using it for decades, on June 27, 1980, The National Anthem Act was finally passed unanimously by the House of Commons and the Senate. On Canada Day, July 1, 1980, in a public ceremony featuring the descendants of Routhier and Weir, O Canada was proclaimed the official national anthem of Canada.

Official English Version, 2018

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

As for me, I cherish most the words to a fourth stanza few people know or recognize, with the exception of in a few church services. I believe it’s the dearest and most wonderful prayer any nation could pray:

Ruler Supreme, who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion in thy loving care;
Help us to find, O God, in thee
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day,
We ever stand on guard.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.


From soup explosions to fearsome medical procedures, from the stories behind our favorite Christmas carols to meeting a first grandchild, Terrie Todd’s popular “Faith and Humor” column has been encouraging and amusing readers of The Graphic Leader since 2010. This book celebrates a decade of wit and wisdom found in Terrie’s hand-picked favorites. Arranged by category, Out of My Mind could be called a weirdly out-of-order memoir of a life in which faith and humor dwell hand in hand. Categories include: Faith, Marriage & Family, The Writing Life, Health & Fitness, Easter, Mother’s & Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, Christmas. Out of My Mind makes a great gift for any occasion.

Terrie Todd is the author of award-winning historical and split-time fiction set in Canada where she lives with her husband, Jon. She also writes a weekly “Faith and Humor” column for hometown paper. Her novels include The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War, Bleak Landing, Rose Among Thornes, The Last Piece, and Lilly’s Promise. Terrie and Jon have three adult children and are grandparents to five boys.

Follow Terrie here:



Quarterly Newsletter Sign-up



  1. Thank you for posting about your national anthem. It was interesting to hear of the constant revisions.