This didn’t really happen:

Prior to passing the National Symbol of Canada Act in 1975, a parliamentary committee discussed the importance of the beaver to Canadian history and heraldry. All parties agreed that the beaver is a suitable emblem for Canada.

It was raised in committee that the beaver does not have the majestic bearing of other countries’ emblems, such as the eagle or the lion. A Conservative member suggested an impressive set of antlers would improve its image.

The Liberals on the committee said they could accept this amendment to the rodent, but they also wanted to see a big bushy tail, similar to that of a squirrel, to offer a friendlier presentation.

New Democrats said they would not agree to a beaver that did not have orange tiger stripes. This was unacceptable to the other members. In a late compromise, all agreed on a pattern of spots similar to those on a Holstein cow.

Finally, a beaver that was acceptable to all parties!

This, however, really did happen:

In 1980, the Parliament of Canada undertook the task of making O Canada the official national anthem. The song had achieved unofficial acceptance over the previous 30 years or so.

But the politicians didn’t think much of it. 

The tune is fine: Calixa Lavallée had cobbled together a few themes from classical composers to create it for a St-Jean-Baptiste celebration in 1880. 

The original French lyrics by Adolphe-Basile Routhier were adequate for the occasion. The standard English lyrics, written by a lawyer named Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, bear no relation to the French ones.

And to be honest, they’re not great—overborne patriotic sentimentality in archaic romantic English. The biggest problem was that Weir managed to cram five “stand on guards” and three “O Canadas” into the last half of the song. 

And so in 1980, rather than just declare the song as “good enough,” or not, a multipartisan gang of politicians set out to “improve” it.

One “O Canada” in the lyrics was replaced by “God keep our land.” I would think that if Weir had wanted to mention God, he had the poetic talent to squeeze His name in there. But I guess that’s what parliamentary committees are for. 

And sure, Weir reminds us again and again that we’re standing on guard. But where are we standing on guard from? (Does that question even make sense to you?)

Why, we’re standing on guard “from far and wide!” It’s utterly meaningless of course, but it was acceptable at the committee stage and at Third Reading, and that’s what matters.

More recently, the lyrics were amended to “True patriot love/In all of us command!” instead of “…In all thy sons command!” A fine effort at inclusion, but not consistent with the pompous language of the rest of the song. Weir’s own first version, “In us thou dost command” would have fit better—which is to say it’s not really very good either.

There have since been debates about how “native land” excludes Canadians who were not born here; and how Canada is in fact our home on—not “and”—native land. 

All of these sentiments are worthy, but the national anthem shouldn’t be a political football. Whenever Canadians change their government, will we be singing verses celebrating the ideology du jour? What rhymes with “gatekeepers?”

There comes a time to recognize we adopted a bit of a turkey, lyrics-wise. We should either leave it alone or scrap it altogether. If we don’t hire songwriters to craft national policy, we shouldn’t let politicians rewrite songs.

And here I share a confession with you, dear readers: while I am now staunchly and firmly nonpartisan, I did once belong to a political party. In 1980 I was a small player on the policy committee for Rhinoceros Party candidate Smilin’ Dave Balderstone in his attempt to unseat Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy. (Smilin’ came within less than a million votes of pulling it off.)

A key plank in his platform was abolishing O Canada and replacing it with Barrett’s Privateers, a Stan Rogers song about a failed raid on an American gold ship. It’s nine verses long with a great chorus, and a lot of fun to sing if you’re drunk.

My political values have matured since 1980, and I drink a lot less. So I have an alternative suggestion: instead of singing a national anthem, let’s all learn the call of the white-throated sparrow.

People recognize that birdsong by attaching words to it: “Beau – ti – ful Canada, Canada, Canada!” But let’s not sing it. Let’s all learn to whistle it like the bird does. It’s Canadian, it’s very pretty, it’s four seconds long, and there’s no words to fight over.

If you’re outside on Canada Day, you’re almost certain to hear it—and it’s almost certain to make you smile.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think. And next time you hear some tortured rendition of O Canada at a football game, imagine how refreshing it would be if we all just stood and whistled those 12 short, sweet notes.

Happy Canada Day!