Some European countries had national anthems by the 18th century, but the practice of governmental designation of a particular patriotic song for national use became widespread only in the late 19th century.
The Canadian situation closely parallels the slow political evolution from colony to nation. After the fall of New France in 1760, the British anthem 'God Save the King,' which appeared in print in its modern form in 1744, came to be sung or played on appropriate occasions. The need for specifically Canadian national songs arose with the desire for self-government early in the 19th century, and a list of would-be national anthems, beginning with the year 1836, is provided under Patriotic songs. Many of these gained a fair measure of popularity (especially, though only among English-Canadians, 'The Maple Leaf For Ever'), but by World War I one of them, Calixa Lavallée 's 'O Canada' (1880), had received acceptance, first among French-Canadians and after 1900 among English-Canadians.
Custom had made 'O Canada' and 'God Save the King (Queen)' the de facto national anthems of Canada, and in 1964 Prime Minister Lester Pearson proposed to take action regarding an official national anthem. Three years passed before a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on the National and Royal Anthems was appointed. The committee first met in February 1967; and on 12 Apr 1967 its unanimous recommendation - that 1/the music of 'God Save the Queen' be designated the official royal anthem, 2/the music of 'O Canada' be designated the official national anthem, and 3/the Crown acquire the copyright to the music of 'O Canada' - was approved (but not legislated) by the House of Commons.
Later that year the committee was charged with considering the question of lyrics for the two anthems. With Rex LeLacheur as music consultant it met 12 times and received more than 1000 proposed lyrics, in English and in French or a combination of the two. One submission, by Jo (Mme Jacques) Ouellet, presented a mixed bilingual verse of 'O Canada.'
In its report, presented in February 1968, the committee unanimously recommended that one verse of each anthem, in each of the two official languages, be adopted. For the English text of 'O Canada' the Robert Stanley Weir version of 1908 was recommended, with a few minor changes; for the French text of the royal anthem, the version that had been adopted in 1952 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The committee recommended also that 'steps be taken to commemorate in some appropriate and permanent form the originators of our National Anthem, i.e. Calixa Lavallée, Adolphe-Basile Routhier and Robert Stanley Weir.'
In October 1969 the offer by the G.V. Thompson music-publishing firm to sell the copyright of the Weir 'O Canada' text to the Crown for the sum of one dollar was accepted, and the rights were vested formally in the government on 13 Oct 1970. A bill (C-158) to turn the committee's recommendations into law was introduced in the House of Commons in 1972 and in several other sessions. The bill still had not, however, come to debate in 1979. At last, on 27 Jun 1980, three days after the centenary of the song's first performance, the House of Commons passed Bill C-36, 'An act respecting the national anthem of Canada'/'loi concernant l'hymne national du Canada,' which designates the words and music of 'O Canada' as the national anthem and declares both as being in the public domain.
A custom had arisen according to which every concert, theatrical performance, and other public event began with a national song. In Toronto usually this was 'God Save the Queen,' in Montreal 'O Canada,' in Winnipeg 'O Canada' at the opening and 'God Save the Queen' at the end. When the Toronto city bylaw to this effect was abolished in 1967, the custom already was on the wane. Where the tradition persists - at gala openings, major sports events, and certain ceremonies - the two anthems often are performed in combination: the first six bars of 'God Save the Queen' followed by the first four bars and the last four bars of 'O Canada'; this combination is called the Vice-Regal Salute.
Author Helmut Kallmann
Canada. 27th Parliament, second session. Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on the National and Royal Anthems. Minutes of Proceedings. No. 1, 2 (1967), No. 3 (1968). Ottawa
Links to Other Sites
Symbols of Canada
An illustrated guide to national and provincial symbols of Canada, our national anthem, national and provincial holidays, and more. Click on "Historical Flags of Canada" and then "Posters of Historical Flags of Canada" for additional images. From the Canadian Heritage website.
Les Voltigeurs de Québec
Watch the Heritage Minute about Canada's national anthem from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.