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Who Wrote O Canada? – and What About the Canadian Flag Design?

Updated on October 3, 2021

In spite of its relatively cold winters…Canada is revered throughout the world as one of the best places in the world to live. Since the early 1970’s, Canada has become an increasingly cultural mosaic, welcoming immigrants from every country of the world.

Every country has their national anthem and flag. Some have become quite familiar world-wide. The U.S. “Star-Spangled Banner”, is likely the best known, along with “God Save the Queen”, the British national anthem and “Union Jack” flag.

However, one of the best-loved anthems and most recognizable flags of the world belongs to Canada. During the last few years they have both been heard and seen frequently at the Summer and Winter Olympics, due to Canada’s medal-winning ways of late – Yeah, Canada rocks!

Who wrote O Canada?

O Canada, the national anthem, didn’t become the ‘official’ national anthem until 1980. However, the tune goes back 100 years before then.

The melody was written by Calixa Lavallée, (a well-regarded French-Canadian composer of some note at the time), in 1880. He also wrote a comic opera, a symphony and several smaller pieces. He was a piano teacher, and a strong proponent for establishing Canada’s first music conservatory.

O Canada was commissioned to accompany a poem by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier, to be played at the "Congrès national des Canadiens-Français", held on June 24th of that year, which is also St. Jean-Baptiste Day, a French holiday.

O Canada – the lyrics

The original French lyrics remain unchanged to this day. However, the English lyrics have seen many versions over the years, both translated from the French, and as a result of various competitions. Most remain in obscurity, however the original English lyrics penned by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, became the most popular for the next 70 years:

*A slight modification of these lines was later suggested and incorporated, such that the original lines:

”And stand on guard, O Canada” became “From far and wide, O Canada


“O Canada, Glorious and free” became “God keep our land, glorious and free”, mostly to relieve some repetition.

Update: In February 2018, the lyrics were officially ammended to make the lyrics 'gender-neutral'. So the second line "True patriot love in all thy sons command" is now "True patriot love in all of us command".

"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!
*And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

*O Canada, Glorious and free,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee."

Although the original poem was longer, this verse and refrain became the ‘unofficial’ national anthem for the next 70 years. During this time, it was also common to have ‘God Save the Queen’ performed (since Canada is part of the British Commonwealth) as well as, or instead of ‘O Canada’ at most public functions. Another tune ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ was also popular during the early 20th century.

Author's note:

I can certainly well recall singing O Canada, along with God Save the Queen, and reciting The Lord’s Prayer, each morning at public school, back in the 1960’s. In high school we weren’t required to sing them aloud…they were merely played on the public address system each morning, using the same, particularly well-worn vinyl record each time.

O Canada becomes the ‘official’ national anthem

O Canada (although an ‘unofficial’ anthem) was played everywhere, until a parliamentary committee was formed in 1967 to decide, once and for all, which national anthem would become ‘official’. Due to various government foot-dragging and changes due to elections, the anthem didn’t become ‘official’ until June of 1980, just in time for July 1st, Canada Day (it was ‘Dominion Day’ until 1982). God Save the Queen, was designated the ‘Royal national anthem’, but is seldom played in Canada these days, except on state visits by British royalty.

The Canadian Flag

The Canadian flag, with it’s familiar red leaf on a white square and two red borders, is easily one of the most recognized flags of the world. Like O Canada, it has a colourful history as well [pun intended].

Way back when…1867 to be exact, Canada officially became a country, although it has remained a part of the British Commonwealth ever since. Being part of the British Commonwealth naturally meant flying the British flag, also known as the ‘Union Jack’ everywhere in Canada, until a suitable Canadian flag could be designed.

From about 1870 to 1922, the ‘Red Ensign’, originally a British Merchant Marine design, became the national flag for Canada. It featured a red background, with the Union Jack in the upper left corner, and also featured a shield emblem containing the symbols of the current Canadian provinces. This was later simplified to the more basic Canadian coat-of-arms shield, and by 1945 the ‘Red Ensign’ was flown all across Canada.

The Red Ensign
The Red Ensign

The Red Ensign

The ‘Red Ensign’ remained Canada’s national flag until the mid-1960’s, when the government of the day decided that, with Canada’s centennial approaching, we ought to have our own flag..a new design that symbolized Canada, much as O Canada does as the national anthem.

As with many previous flag debates, the idea was not without its detractors, and a hot debate in late 1964 ensued. Many people, those wanting to maintain allegiance to the British monarchy, otherwise known as ‘United Empire Loyalists’, were dead-set against any change that involved dispensing with the good old ‘Union Jack’.

Several new designs were proposed. All of them featured one to three red leaves on a white background, which had become a common symbol of Canada for many years. In fact, red and white were declared Canada’s national colours by the British King George V in 1921. The red leaf on a white background has also been the symbol for Canadian Olympic athletes since 1904.

Pearson's Pennant
Pearson's Pennant

Alternate Canadian flag designs

Alternate designs included blue borders at each end (to represent the Pacific and Atantic coasts), and three red leaves. This was the choice of then Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, and was jokingly referred to as “Pearson’s Pennant”. In the end it was decided to simplify the design to the single red leaf and two red borders that we have today.

The final design

The original one-leaf, red and white design, by Dr. George Stanley, Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College, in Kingston, Ontario, was simplified to 11 points on the red leaf (no significance there), by Jacques St-Cyr, the precise dimensions of the red and white suggested by Mr. George Best, and the specific shade of red determined by Dr. Gunter Wyszchi.

It's official...

It was proclaimed Canada’s national flag on February 15, 1965. It’s simple, but distinctive red and white design has come to represent a proud country, where freedom, tolerance, cold winter hardiness, and of course, politeness and dry humour, are the cornerstones of being Canadian.

This article ©2011 by timorous


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