Happy Canada Day 2005

Once again, Ottawa is the home today of Canada’s biggest street party on this, our 138th birthday.

Last year, on the Crusty Curmudgeon’s first Canada Day, I began a practice of collecting Canadian patriotic songs and writing up a thumbnail history of them. I started, understandably, with our national anthem. This year’s entry is “The Maple Leaf Forever”: a song which could have been, and almost was.

In October 1867, Alexander Muir, principal of the elementary school in the village of Leslieville (now part of Toronto), was searching for the theme of a Confederation-celebrating poem, which he wanted to enter in a contest. While he was walking with local businessman George Leslie, a maple leaf fell from a tree and stuck to the arm of Leslie’s jacket.

The maple tree under which they were walking still stands at Memory Lane and Laing Street.

Leslie suggested to Muir that since the maple leaf was a symbol of Canada, he should build his text around it. Muir had found his theme; he quickly penned a poem and had it in the mail within hours. It won second prize.

Here is the text:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,

Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came,

And planted firm Britannia’s flag

On Canada’s fair domain.

Here may it wave, our boast, our pride,

And joined in love together,

The Thistle, Shamrock, Rose entwine

The Maple Leaf forever.

Chorus:

The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,

The Maple Leaf forever.

God save our Queen, and heaven bless

The Maple Leaf forever.

At Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane

Our brave fathers, side by side,

For freedom, homes, and loved ones dear

Firmly stood and nobly died;

And those dear rights which they maintained

We swear to yield them never!

Our watchword ever more shall be

The Maple Leaf forever!

Chorus

Our fair Dominion now extends

From Cape Race to Nootka Sound;

May peace forever be our lot,

And plenteous store abound:

And may those ties of love be ours

Which discord cannot sever,

And flourish green o’er Freedom’s home

The Maple Leaf forever!

Chorus

A few explanatory notes for those who may not understand all the allusions Muir makes:

  • James Wolfe was the general who established British rule over Canada, defeating the French forces of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759. Both generals lost their lives in this decisive battle.
  • Queenston Heights was the location of a major battle of the War of 1812, in which the forces of General Isaac Brock successfully repelled an American invasion over the Niagara River at Queenston on October 13, 1812. Brock himself died in the battle; the Canadian War Museum displays his uniform, with a bullet hole through the breast.
  • The Battle of Lundy’s Lane took place on July 14, 1814 in Niagara Falls. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on Canadian soil and the last attempt ever made by an American army to invade Canadian territory.
  • Cape Race is the southeastern corner of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. As a point of interest, the lighthouse that stood on the cape in Muir’s day now stands on the lawn of the Museum of Science and Technology here in Ottawa.
  • Nootka Sound is an inlet on the western shore of Vancouver Island.
  • The thistle, shamrock, and rose are, of course, the national flowers of Scotland, Ireland, and England, respectively.

Some of these references pose an interesting conundrum. Neither Nootka Sound nor Cape Race were part of Canada in 1867. British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, and Newfoundland in 1949. However, it is known that Muir made several revisions to “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and it is also possible that he employed a little poetic license (or perhaps even wishful thinking).

Here is a low-quality MP3 of a military band playing “The Maple Leaf Forever.” The music, as well as the words, is Muir’s; unsatisfied with any tunes available for sale, he wrote his own.

Muir paid $30 for the printing of 1,000 copies of “The Maple Leaf Forever,” no small amount for 1867, and never received back his money in sales. Nonetheless, the poem became so popular that it was practically Canada’s unofficial national anthem. However, by the mid-20th century, it had fallen out of favour, probably partly because it was perceived as “anti-French.” Of course, being strongly pro-English is not the same as being anti-French. Muir praises General Wolfe, but he does not vilify General Montcalm. Both men are regarded as Canadian heroes. As a staunch Presbyterian and a member of the Orangemen, it was only natural that Alexander Muir’s patriotism had a strong British, Protestant flavour. However, he was sensitive to the fact that in Confederation French and English were joined together as Canadians, so in one revision to the first verse, he wrote: “The Lily, Thistle, Shamrock, Rose, / The Maple Leaf forever.”

In 1997, the CBC’s “Metro Morning” program in Toronto ran a contest to find new, more politically sensitive lyrics to “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and began to promote it to Canadians. Unlike Muir’s original, this bland ode to the land is divorced from any distinctive Canadian history or heritage, and the less said about it, the better.

A few facts about the maple leaf, Canada’s national symbol:

  • Its first documented use as a Canadian symbol was by the Societé Saint-Jean-Baptiste, in 1834. It appeared as part of Canadian military emblems in both World Wars.
  • There are many varieties of maple tree, but the Canadian maple leaf is patterned after the hard sugar maple. The stylized leaf on the Canadian flag has 11 points; a natural leaf typically has more than twice as many.
  • The maple leaf flag became the official flag of Canada on February 15, 1965. It was chosen out of nearly 6,000 submissions.
  • The exact size and placement of the maple leaf on the flag was determined after extensive testing in the National Research Laboratory Wind Tunnel. The Canadian flag is therefore the only one in the world to have undergone aerodynamic testing before being released.
  • Along the same lines, the Canadian flag is unique in that the white “pale” (vertical stripe) covers one-half the flag’s area instead of one-third.
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