Wednesday, January 2, 2008

O Canada! Our home, da-dum, da-dum...

I recently received a much-forwarded email exhorting me to SPEAK UP about a proposal that O Canada be sung in Hindi. One Bruce Allan had apparently spoken out against the proposal and got himself in deep doo-doo. The author of the message was in a patriotic froth.

"Enough is enough,”s/he wrote. "No where or at no other time in our nation's history, did they sing it in Italian, Japanese, Polish, Irish (Celtic), German, Portuguese, Greek, or any other language because of immigration. It was written in English, adapted into co-founding French, and should be sung word for word the way it was written. The news broadcasts even gave the translation -- not even close.”

Goodness me.

I flashed up Google. I believe, rather quaintly in this day of instant electronic outrage, that it's a good idea to know what you're talking about before you sound off. So who had made the proposal, and in what circumstances? Who was Bruce Allan (or Allen) and how had he drawn his line in the sand?

Bruce Allan proved to be an impresario who has been hired to produce the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He does regular commentaries on a private radio station. In September, he did one on immigrants.

Said Allan: "It seems more and more that we are being pilloried by special interest groups that just want to make special rules for themselves. This is easy to solve: these are the rules, there's the door. If you don't like the rules, hit it. We don't need you here. You have another place to go: it's called home. See ya."

That provoked a storm of outrage from recent immigrants and from the politically-correct. MP Raymond Chan complained to the CRTC. Allan subsequently claimed that his comments were pro-immigrant. If so, that was easy to miss.

But nothing in Allan's comments involved the singing of O Canada in Hindi, one of India's 20 official languages. I found no such proposal anywhere, though I did find a touching 2006 story about a newly-composed anthem in praise of Canada by Pakistani-Canadian composer Sohail Rana -- with lyrics apparently in Urdu.

The spectral Hindi version of O Canada is an odd episode -- but the story of O Canada was always odd. It was first written in French, not English, for a "Congrès national des Canadiens-Français" in 1880. The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Hon. Théodore Robitaille, commissioned Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier to write a hymn, which the well-known composer Calixa Lavallée would set to music.

That 1880 version of O Canada is still the only French version. No English version existed until 1906, when Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson of Toronto translated Routhier's poem:

O Canada! Our fathers' land of old
Thy brow is crown'd with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth...

Two years later, Collier's Magazine ran a contest, won by one Mercy E. Powell McCulloch. Her version began:

O Canada! in praise of thee we sing;
From echoing hills our anthems proudly ring...

There were many other versions. Growing up in BC in the 1940s, I first learned a version composed by a Vancouver bank manager named Ewing Buchan:

O Canada, our heritage, our love
Thy worth we praise all other lands above...

All this time, O Canada was just a patriotic song, not an official national anthem. It was customarily sung -- in one version or another -- at the beginning of an event, followed by God Save The King at the end. Mackenzie King thought that was quite good enough. So did Louis St. Laurent.

Finally, in 1980, Parliament proclaimed O Canada our official national anthem. The English words chosen were a revision of the version written in 1908 by Montreal judge Robert Stanley Weir. In Parliament's version, "From far and wide" replaced one of the three repetitions of "We stand on guard." Senator Vivienne Poy later introduced legislation to revise the revision, changing "in all thy sons command” to "in all of us command.”The measure never passed, but lots of people sing it that way anyway.

If there are numerous English versions and a French one already, why shouldn't there be others? Maybe the Hindi version would begin, "O Canada, great Shiva's cold domain..”The natives could sing, "O Canada! Our truly native land!”The Gaelic version might start, "O Canada! Macdonald's whisky dream...”

The true Canadian tradition about O Canada is confusion. The wording still hasn't settled down, so most of us sing the first line or two and mumble the rest. And if the people beside us are equally proud of this wonderful, goofy country, but want to mumble in Turkish or Tagalog instead, why not? Just smile and keep singing. Civility and good humour are among the great Canadian virtues.
-- 30 --

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