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by Gabrielle Taylor

June 11, 2000

As I mentioned previously, last time Canada went to war with the US, we made an honest attempt to burn the White House. Of course, Canada wasn't properly a country then -- it would not be formally incorporated until 1867 with the British North America Act -- and it wasn't the White House yet either, not until it was whitewashed to cover the scorch marks. Britannica calls it a British raiding party, which is a bit like calling Alexander the Great a Pelasgian.

I am speaking of the most unpopular war in American history, being the War of 1812, a war so traumatic it has to be relived at every sporting event in Star Spangled form, though not formally until 1931. As a sidenote, we didn't get a formal anthem in Canada until 1980; we might've had a coupon for a free anthem with every Bill of Rights.

It's odd that a country as militant and powerful as the US would have an anthem based on one of its few unsuccessful military campaigns. The War of 1812 was less popular than Vietnam and the results no better than a draw. Yet every time a President is sworn in, every World Series, and every Olympic gold medal commemorates a bizarre holding action that nobody was all that interested in perpetrating at the time.

The Canadian national anthem lyrics were originally a French poem by a French justice set to music first performed in Montreal on June 24, St. Jean-Baptiste Day, 1880. Various translations to English appeared, with the least militant or religious one coming from another judge in 1908. This would become the official English version, likely by virtue of being much duller than the original French, which had nobody "on guard for thee" but an enthusiastic endorsement of making "thy arm ready to wield the sword".

Neither country shows a glamourous face with its anthems, but the face shown is the commonest. America comes off violent as hell -- but victorious-by-the-grace-of-God-and-much-appreciated-thanks. Canada appears either to be a quiet little enclave with no ambitions beyond maintaining the frozen wasteland that it's pretty damn interested in, or, to the French, to have a history "of the most brilliant exploits", which is about generic-par as anthems go. "O Canada" also comes from Québec. Québec has also produced more prime ministers than any other province, despite not having the largest population base, yet still feels it has been so badly represented in Canadian government that it should have its own.

Both songs eventually claimed formal acceptance by the respective goverments after being sung continually throughout World War I, each about a hundred years after first appearance. Note that neither started out to be national anthems. Unless the people identified with those songs, the songs would never have become official national anthems. It took almost exactly 100 years for "O Canada" to become official and over 120 years for "Star Spangled Banner".

These songs did not shape national character; they are shaped by national character. American-Canadian conflict was on its way to becoming an institution over 50 years before Canada was officially formed.

If it seems late for any Canadian to take exception at "Star Spangled Banner", it is worth noting that Canada did recently split off part of the Northwest Territories to return to North American aboriginals. Similar disputes are in arbitration regarding more useable parts of the country, like parts of British Columbia that aren't covered in permafrost.

This is not to say it's worth kicking up fuss now; the point is to examine the common ways in which our conflicts are regularly reinforced. A new US anthem celebrating the Alaskan panhandle victory wouldn't go over well today; neither, I suppose, would a new Vietnamese anthem celebrating the genius of Ho Chi Minh.

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