‘O Canada’: What’s in a National Anthem, and Should It Evolve With the Times?

Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill. Photo: franckreporter/Getty Images; Inset: Jully Black sings Canada's national anthem ahead of the NBA All-Star game, Salt Lake City, Utah, February 19, 2023. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Toronto-born singer-songwriter Jully Black triggered a massive discussion around the Canadian national anthem last weekend when she sang O Canada at the NBA All-Star game and changed the lyrics slightly from “our home and native land” to “our home on native land.”

For her part, the 45-year-old told TSN’s The Shift that she spoke with Indigenous friends before performing O Canada to see how they felt about her singing it in light of the ongoing conversation around Indigenous rights in Canada. 

“I really dissected the lyrics, to really sing it with intention,” Black, dubbed Canada’s Queen of R&B, said. Later, she told CBC’s The National that “I sang the facts. We are walking, breathing, living, experiencing life on native land. On Indigenous land.”

And she’s not wrong. Public happenings from sporting events to film festivals routinely begin by acknowledging that they are operating on traditional Indigenous land. Is it such an outrage to acknowledge as much in our national anthem?   

Regardless, the change elicited both cheers and jeers on social media. 

“No. We do not get to individually change the lyrics to our national anthem. There is a process,” Toronto Sun editor Cynthia McLeod tweeted, while others tossed around the word “woke” to decry the change.  

On the other side of the debate, former Olympic skier Trennon Paynter echoed a common social media sentiment when he tweeted, “Weird how the crowd prone to using the Canadian flag as a political prop to be defaced, made into obscene stickers and slogans, etc., is all of a sudden ‘outraged’ by this. It’s a real puzzle.” 

Author and educator Amie Archibald-Varley also summed up the thoughts of many Canadians when she tweeted, “@JullyBlack understood the assignment. She represented the language in which we should be speaking. This is walking in truth. This is allyship. The lands we have come to know as Canada, although many of us call it home, it is ON NATIVE LAND.”

Indigenous leaders, too, cheered Black’s anthem change, while others are calling for it to be made permanent.

All of which begs the question of how sacred a national anthem is in the first place, and how prone it is to change?


A Brief History of Our Ever-Changing National Anthem

For many, the Canadian national anthem is, and should remain, unalterable unless, perhaps, by way of national referendum.  

That’s why the year 2016 stands out as a banner year for O Canada-related outrage.

To start, singer Nelly Furtado sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto and altered the melody so much that she received massive backlash.

And later that year, when The Tenors sang O Canada at the 2016 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, group member Remigio Pereira went rogue, held up an “All Lives Matter” sign and changed the lyrics from “With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the True North strong and free,” to “We’re all brothers and sisters, all lives matter to the great.” Pereira was roundly criticized for the stunt and booted from the group.

This all happened against the backdrop of a 2016 bill that proposed to make the lyrics to O Canada gender neutral, changing the line “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” While many applauded the change, others saw it as being too sensitive — inclusivity be damned. The Globe and Mail even ran a story with the pearl-clutching headline “Is this the end of O Canada as we know it?”

And yet, despite the bill finally becoming law in 2018, Canada as a nation, with its gender-neutral anthem, somehow managed to survive.

Which is fitting since the anthem, originally written by composer Calixa Lavallée in 1880 as a French-only anthem, has changed numerous times in the nearly century-and-a-half since. In fact, between 1901 and 1980 — when O Canada became official under law — numerous Canadian anthems made their way across the Great White North. According to the Canadian government’s website, those multiple versions included the English translation of the original French anthem, an anthem decided by a contest in Collier’s Weekly — yes, a magazine contest to determine our national anthem — and a version written by a man named Ewing Buchan, a Canadian banker. 

None of these versions reflect the current national anthem.  

In fact, even the current O Canada, written by Montreal lawyer Robert Stanley Weir in 1908 and officially adopted in 1980, had original lyrics that read, “O Canada! Our home and native land!

True patriot love, thou dost in us command.”

Yes, it was originally gender neutral. But by the time we got to 1980 and the National Anthem Act, it had been changed to “in all thy sons command.”

Meanwhile, Buchan’s anthem included the lines, “From sea to sea throughout their length

From Pole to borderland, At Britain’s side, whate’er betide, Unflinchingly we’ll stand.”

Surely, had we adopted that tune officially, the line pledging our devotion to Britain would have aged out of relevance following the signing of the Constitution Act in 1982, necessitating a change. 


Who Gets to Change O Canada?

 If we accept that O Canada, then, isn’t written in stone, the next logical question becomes: “Who gets to change it?”

Do singers performing at sporting events get to alter the national anthem based on their own beliefs? Perhaps, as a general rule, it’s not a good idea to allow that to happen on the regular. The anthem belongs to the country, after all, not one individual. 

That said, does the intent for changing the anthem matter? 

For example, there is a difference between Tenor Remigio Pereira altering the anthem to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement and Jully Black changing one word to bring awareness to Indigenous rights. The intent of the former, to tear down a marginalized community, is diametrically opposed to the latter’s intent to show support for one.  

Not to mention that, when compared to the brutality, neglect and trauma experienced by generations of Indigenous communities in Canada — some of those communities living in conditions described as “third world” within Canada — the tweaking of one small word in the anthem to raise awareness seems like small potatoes.    

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, in the end there remains one undeniable fact: Canada itself is an ever-changing country. Does it not, then, stand to reason that its national anthem should evolve along with it?

Perhaps if we can agree on that one point, then we can get down to finding common ground regarding how O Canada changes and evolves.   

Or, we just use the tried and true method and choose a new anthem via a magazine contest.