The origins of “O Canada” have a surprising cottage country connection

Published: June 28, 2018

a-Canadian-flag Photo by Midiwaves/Shutterstock

Whether it’s dewy-eyed hockey fans, a regiment of soldiers, or a class of fifth graders, “O Canada” draws people to their feet. The resounding notes of the national anthem evoke a feeling of patriotism and pride across the country. It is a song inextricably linked to Canada’s identity and one you’re likely to hear (or sing) at least once this Canada Day weekend. But what many people aren’t aware of is the national anthem’s strong tie to cottage country.

It was in 1908, as Quebec City celebrated its 300th anniversary, that a man from Hamilton staying at a cottage on the eastern shore of Lac Memphrémagog in Cedarville, Quebec wrote the English version of “O Canada” that would eventually become the country’s national anthem. That man was Robert Stanley Weir, a practicing lawyer who’d moved to Montreal for school and work, and the cottage was Cedarhurst, a labyrinthine 17-room former hotel, bought by Weir in the early 1880s.

Weir and his family spent the summers at Cedarhurst, often extending their stays as long as six months. It was there, during the summer of 1908, seated at his piano overlooking the lake, that he wrote the English version of “O Canada.”

The original version of the anthem was French, written by two Quebec-born men in 1880. The Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec Théodore Robitaille commissioned musician and teacher Calixa Lavallée to compose the music and poet and judge Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to write the lyrics to a song that would be played in honour of the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français (National Congress of French Canadian) on June 24. The French version remains unchanged with the lyrics differing from Weir’s English version.

Weir’s version has been tinkered with over the years. In fact, earlier this year, the lyric “in all of thy sons command” was changed to the gender neutral “in all of us command.” And while not all four verses of Weir’s lyrics are used today, you’re able to see the influence Cedarhurst and the surrounding cottage landscape of Eastern Quebec had on the original lyrics: “Where pines and maples grow” and “lordly rivers flow.”

Weir’s original lyrics  

O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love thou dost in us command.

We see thee rising fair, dear land,

The True North, strong and free;

And stand on guard, O Canada,

We stand on guard for thee.

(Refrain)

O Canada! O Canada!

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee

O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western Sea;

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

(Refrain)

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years,

From East to Western Sea.

Our own beloved native land,

Our True North, strong and free!

(Refrain)

Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our dominion within 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.

(Refrain)

It was not until 1980, after parliament passed the National Anthem Act, that “O Canada” was officially declared the country’s national anthem. Prior to that, it was “God Save the Queen.” So, whether you’re spending this weekend atop the summit of the Rockies, on the red beaches of P.E.I., or sitting on the cottage dock, feel free to belt out the anthem loud and proud.

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