A Canada Day meditation: Standing on guard for what, precisely?
By Michael Keefer | First published in The Canadian Charger (7 August 2009),
There was an Old Person of Tring
Who when she was called on to sing
Replied, “Ain’t it odd,
I can never tell ‘God
Save the Weasel’ from ‘Pop Goes the King’.”
“Tring” sounds like a name made up for the rhyme—but there really is such a town in England, in the Chiltern hills in Hertfordshire. Tring has a pretty High Street, and it has rugby, cricket, and football clubs, as well as a microbrewery to serve the needs of all those athletes. Famous past inhabitants include George Washington’s great-grandfather and the second Lord Rothschild, an amateur zoologist who founded Tring’s Natural History Museum, but is better remembered for having released the edible dormouse, a foreign species, into the Chiltern countryside in 1902, and for his disconcerting habit of driving about Tring in a carriage drawn by zebras.
Whether or not the Old Person’s confusion of weasels and kings resulted from distraction by all the exotic fauna, I can’t help feeling some sympathy for her, since for much of my life I’ve had lesser difficulties with our own national anthem.
In my early childhood the anthem, for Tring and Toronto alike, was “God Save the King.” But before my fifth birthday it changed to “God Save the Queen.” I remember from shortly afterwards a little me in short pants, double-breasted pea-jacket and wooly beret waving a paper Union Jack glued to a stick, while clutching my mother’s skirt with the other hand, as our new monarch swept down Toronto’s Bayview Avenue in her royal limousine, preceded and followed by rumbling herds of helmeted policemen on Harley-Davidsons. (Who could have predicted that this shy white-gloved young Elizabeth II would achieve the remarkable feat, after a long decline in her horsy middle years, of ageing into a passable likeness to the brilliant and beautiful Helen Mirren?)
By the time I was six, I could entertain visiting aunts and uncles and annoy my older siblings with a piping-soprano repertoire that included “God Save the Queen,” as well as “Michael Finnegan”1 and “A Capital Ship.”2 And in school I was learning “The Maple Leaf Forever,” a happily-forgotten song that for generations of bigoted Ontarians served as an unofficial anthem—principally because of its emphasis on “Wolfe the conquering hero,” and its determined omission of Québec’s fleur-de-lys from the garland of Scottish thistle, Irish shamrock and English rose that by some botanical miracle had entwined themselves to produce “The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear.” The definite implication of this song was that if Papists and Frenchies had any place after the battle of the Plains of Abraham in a country whose anglophone provinces aspired to be, next to Ulster, the most fervently loyal appendage of the British Empire, that place would have to be a dim and subordinate one.
In school we were also learning “O Canada,” which a quarter-century later, in 1980, would become our one-and-only official national anthem. (“God Save the Queen” persists, in a typically Canadian compromise, as our “official royal anthem,” whatever that means.)
I must confess that the words of “O Canada” puzzled me.
Even the first line was a teaser to a first-grader who couldn’t yet read, and who in the Toronto manner gave unstressed vowels a nasal sound like the subdued honk of a Canada goose. “O Canada, our home ’n native land!”: was that “in native land,” “on native land”—or, less probably, “and native land”? The third alternative is the correct one, but in 1954 the first-graders of John Fisher Public School sang a muddled mixture of the other two—thus inadvertently producing meanings both subversive of the line’s intent and also historically more responsible.
“Home and native” blends two distinct terms into a conflated meaning. Canada, the line says, is not just a place where we live; it’s one to which we primally belong. But we first-graders reversed this conflation: Canada’s our home all right, but it’s on or in “native land”—what as adults we might come to recognize as land purchased, in some cases, and more often simply stolen from the First Nations people who are its aboriginal, ancestral and native inhabitants.
The second line of “O Canada” was more purely mystifying: “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” Now who’s doing what to whom here? I heard “sons” as a possessive, and took the line to signify that all of Canada’s young males somehow had “true patriot love” in their power, or at their command. (We could inspire it, then? If I commanded true patriot love in Alice Maclean, would she play with me at recess?)
The opening lines of “O Canada” actually mean something much stranger. What misled me was the sentence’s inverted syntax: in fact the words are asking our personified nation to “command” an authentic patriotic fervour in all its sons. But the trope of apostrophe, in which we speak directly to abstract concepts, body parts, recalcitrant computers, or collectivities like Canada as though they were living beings possessed of agency and intention, has uncanny implications. An apostrophic address (O destiny! O hands! O you horrible machine! O Canada!) summons these things into active existence as agents upon whom our words have conferred quasi-human powers of thought and action—which they are then able to exert on us.
That is what our national anthem is doing. Summoned into being by the opening apostrophe, Canada is exhorted in the syntactically inverted second line to “command” authentic patriotic love in all its sons. We then declare ourselves to be inflamed by this same love as we witness the Canada our words have invoked rise up before us:
O Canada, our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
Lines three and four could be taken to mean no more than that we’re happy to think of our country prospering in strength and freedom. But their direct meaning is the weird and uncanny one I have been suggesting. We have called up Canada as a magician invokes a spirit, and in summoning this Canada we have asked it to exert a power of command over Canadian men. We then register the effects of our own incantation: we feel in ourselves the emotion we have exhorted Canada to inspire in us, and at the same time see this True North rising up before us. Shades of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus or Shakespeare’s Prospero waving a magic wand? I think so.
Robert Stanley Weir, the Montreal lawyer who wrote the English lyrics to “O Canada” in 1908,3 seems to have run out of steam after the first four lines:
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee!
O Canada, glorious and free,
We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee;
We stand on guard, we stand on guard for thee!
There’s something a bit silly about Weir’s apparent obsession with guard duty—as though Canadians were to imagine themselves as perpetual occupants of sentry boxes watching out forever over the True North’s borders.4 It did make matters easier for primary schoolers, who after learning the opening lines could get through the rest by mumbling “We stand on guard” until it was over. But when “O Canada” was officially adopted as our national anthem on July 1st 1980, the spells of guard duty were halved in number. The last five lines are now: “From far and wide, O Canada, / We stand on guard for thee. / God keep our land glorious and free! / O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. / O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
One of the things about this national anthem that it’s hard not to like is its textual flexibility. We have the charmingly antiquated French original, which seems to be invoking Canada as a piece of classical statuary: “Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux” (“Your forehead is bound with wreaths of glory”). Or as an alternative we have the variant forms of Weir’s text, which after the first seven words makes no effort to translate the French. There’s also an Inuktitut version, which has official status in Nunavut. (The territory’s name, which means “our land,” recurs in its opening words: “Uu Kanata! nangmini nunavut!” Sung by people whose ancestral attachment to the land goes back thousands of years, this can’t help but convey meanings quite different from those of the Kabloona versions of southern settlers.)
Add to these the Cree version, which is evidently moving toward official status (it has been sung at the opening of a Calgary Flames hockey game), and an Ojibwa version which will no doubt follow it.
And then there’s the happy fact that English Canadians tend to sing whatever words they please. Those who object to having God in the national anthem stick to the pre-1980 version; those who choose to remember whose native land this really is sing “our home on native land”; while the French version remains available for anyone who feels like some harmless ancestor-worship (“O Canada, terre de nos aïeux”) or an uncritical celebration of the excitement of Canadian history (“Ton histoire est une épopée / Des plus brilliants exploits”).
The French text also provides a useful hint as to what in particular English Canadians, if they insist on standing perpetually on guard, might think of defending. Here are its closing words:
Et ta valeur, de foi trempée,
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits,
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.
Québécois schoolchildren who heard this as “deux fois trempée,” may have been puzzled by the notion of “double-dipped valour.” Correctly understood, the lines mean: “Your [Canada’s] valour, steeped in faith, will protect both our homes and our rights.”
What rights might these be? Our right to free socialized medicine, unchallenged by the sneak attacks of liberal or conservative politicians who don’t feel like conserving this central achievement of Canadian social democracy? Our right to national elections free from partisan interference (as in 2006) by the national police, and from vote-suppression robocall fraud organized (as in 2011) by the governing party? Our right to a foreign policy that reflects the decent impulses of most Canadians, as opposed to the neoconservative hypocrisies that in recent years have sullied Canada’s international reputation? Our right, in a period of high unemployment, to timely assistance from the national unemployment insurance fund paid for by our contributions and our taxes? Or our right to critical, intelligent news media free from crass manipulation by monopolistic ideologues like Conrad Black, the Asper family, or Pierre Karl Péladeau (the CEO of Sun Media and Quebecor)?
Guard duty in the abstract sounds tedious as well as silly. But we do possess rights worth defending. Though the French text composed by Adolphe-Basile Routhier in 1880 suggests that a personified Canada will protect our rights, we might do better to take on the job ourselves.
1 “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan, / He grew whiskers on his chin-egan, / Along came the wind and blew them in again, / Poor old Michael Finnegan.” That’s all there is, barring an exhortation to the singer to begin again, which puts the song, like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, into an endless loop of repetition.
2 “O a capital ship for a sailing trip / Was the Walloping Window-Blind. / No gale that blew could disturb the crew / Or trouble the captain’s mind. / The man at the wheel was taught to feel / Contempt for the wildest blow, -ow, -ow, / And it often appeared when the weather cleared / That he’d been in his bunk below.” I’ll spare you the rest. The three melodies in my repertoire shared with the tunes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” a common origin as eighteenth-century drinking songs.
3 Weir’s 1908 text has as its second line “True patriot love thou dost in us command”; he changed this in 1914 to the version I have commented on.
4 In 1928 Weir added a fourth stanza to his text, in which guard duty acquires apocalyptic overtones: “Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer, / Hold our Dominion in 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….” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Canada for Weir’s complete text.