On Friday night, at the Edmonton Eskimos game (my profound apologies to the 14 people in Canada who find the term ‘Eskimo’ offensive), the national anthem singer chose to perform the anthem in the bilingual version.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when English-French tensions in western Canada were such that singing the anthem half in French would be booed by the yahoo element. Not anymore, happily. In fact, when the singer launched into the middle section in French, I was certain that I heard a lot of people singing along. I thought that was quite nice, and a sign of a country that has truly come to grips with, and embraced, its duality, whatever that means. (Lester Pearson got the ball rolling to make O Canada the national anthem in 1966, when he made a motion “that the government be authorized to take such steps as may be necessary to provide that ‘O Canada’ shall be the National Anthem of Canada while ‘God Save The Queen’ shall be the Royal Anthem of Canada.” For some reason, it didn’t become official until 1980. Only in Canada.)

imagesBut it also dawned on me that the people singing along likely had no idea at all what they were singing.

Countries with national anthems sung in different languages is not entirely unusual. But I can’t imagine that there are many, if any, where the translations are entirely different.

Take, for example, the French lyrics some fans were mumbling along with at the football game. For the record, here they are:

Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix!

Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.

You’re singing along, aren’t you? But what are we singing? It is the same as the English version? Mais non, mon ami. It’s not even close.  Here’s the translation of the French section of the bilingual national anthem:

For your arm knows how to wield the sword
Your arm knows how to carry the cross;

Your history is an epic
Of brilliant deeds

In fact, if you translate the entire first verse of the French version into English, the most famous phrases of the version we all sing – ‘True North strong and free’; ‘we stand on guard for thee’ – are entirely absent. Here’s the translation of the French version of our national anthem:

Land of our ancestors
Glorious deeds circle your brow
For your arm knows how to wield the sword
Your arm knows how to carry the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of brilliant deeds
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights,
Will protect our homes and our rights.

The French version certainly is much more boastful than the English version. It’s a bit much to say our history is an epic of brilliant deeds, isn’t it? And the bit about swords and crosses are straight up Catholic references, which is just not allowed in let’s-not-offend-anyone Canada. French Canada, to its credit (or debit, depending on your point of view), apparently isn’t quite as obsessed with “inclusion” as the rest of Canada. Or, more likely, they really don’t care that much about the national anthem.

While on the topic of the national anthem, there are other verses. Here’s the second verse, which I think should get bit more airtime because it’s pretty good:

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!

Pines, maples, prairies, rivers, seas … it’s got it all. And ‘land of hope’ is a nice touch.  But the third verse? It’s better left unsung, but here it is.

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!

I don’t mind being called a stalwart son, but I suspect most Canadian women would take umbrage with being called ‘gentle maidens’. Even when the song was written, Canadian women probably rolled their eyes (discreetly) at that line.

No matter the lyrics, whether you sing them in English, French, Frenglish or not at all, the bottom line is that this is a country worth singing about. On this Canada Day, it’s worth taking a moment to consider that we Canadians are some of the luckiest people in the world. Heaven knows we have our flaws, but seriously … where would you rather live?





3 thoughts on “Think you know the national anthem? Think again; but this time, in French.

  1. What a lovely little gem you gave us this Canada Day Maurice. Our history is quite fascinating and this is a great example. Sometimes I wonder if many Canadians know the US anthem better than our own, if you are a sports fan you hear it all the time. I do have one funny story tho, I was at a Phoenix suns game when Steve Nash was playing and as they sung the national anthem not many people were singing. I was quite surprised, so I leaned over and asked a couple of guys why they weren’t singing, stunned they looked at me, “We don’t know the words we’re from Canada.” What a great laugh I had.

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