#14-10 – Flag and anthem mark Canada’s coming of age.

The following is an abbreviated version of a presentation prepared for a chapter of Beta Sigma Phi in Barrie, Ontario.

It was 45 years ago that the red maple leaf first flew as Canada’s flag. It was a brisk, cold night in mid February as people gathered informally on Parliament Hill to witness the event. The flag hung limp as it was slowly raised to the top of the Centre Block. The people watching were silent as though collectively willing the new flag to catch the breeze. When the breeze did catch it and the maple leaf and its red borders streamed in the wind, the cheering was loud and excited.

There was not the same excitement for the country’s national anthem that had a gestation of more than 100 years, with many rewrites and modifications. God Save the Queen remained the national anthem of Canada until July 1, 1980. O Canada had been the country’s most popular patriotic song since the early 1900s. This was despite the fact that most of us were confused by the number of times we were required to sing that we would Stand on guard.

Both anthem and flag were introduced on Parliament Hill and while the Canada Day crowd was larger for the introduction of the newly approved national anthem, it did not seem as exciting as that cold winter day when the flag was unfurled.

Discussion of a new flag had started back in 1919. At the time, the Union Jack of Great Britain was the only national flag. As Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King must have reported to his mother in his séances, if you really want to start another donnybrook in parliament, just suggest that they should consider a new flag. As it was, Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberals had to resort to trickery to get the Conservative opponents on the parliamentary committee to agree to the single maple leaf flag. The opponents thought the Liberals wanted to support what was rudely called the ‘Pearson Pennant’—a version with three blue maple leaves. When the Liberals also supported the single red maple leaf flag, the deed was done.

As you can see at the Vancouver Olympics, people from across this country are proud to wrap themselves in the colors and in the actual flag.

But what we saw in the opening of the Olympics was not what was intended for our national anthem. As many performers have found out, to their dismay, putting your individual interpretation on the national anthem is not a crowd pleaser. Giving a jazz interpretation might amuse jazz enthusiasts but can deeply offend people who prefer the more traditional version. After all, the national anthem is a hymn to the country and for someone to change words or change the beat is to mock the song and country.

The one thing Canadians have always agreed upon is the music originally written by Calixa Lavallée in 1880 has become the official music and it is not rap, western, jazz, Dixie. operatic or bluegrass. It is to be played with dignity and not so slow as to become a dirge. The words have had many revisions over the years but are based on the Robert Stanley Weir version that he wrote in Montreal in 1908. In approving the music and words for our national anthem, the only change the parliamentarians made in the English words was to take out some of the Stand on guards. That has left many of us just humming along when we get to that part. Hopefully, children, now in elementary school, will grow up knowing the right words.

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