Les Voltigeurs de Québec



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A part of our heritage...


Our history is full of discoveries and occasional surprises - the origin of "O Canada!" is one example. Although officially proclaimed Canada's national anthem in Ottawa on July 1, 1980, "O Canada!" was introduced in Québec City a hundred years earlier, on June 24, 1880, and was subsequently adopted as the patriotic anthem of French Canadians!

With the advent of Canadian Confederation in 1867, patriotic songs and marches were very much in fashion in the new country. Moreover, it was felt a national anthem was needed to bind together the young dominion of four provinces. Once again a majority in their territory, French Canadians in turn viewed the new Confederation as a certain recognition of their distinct nationality.

In January 1880, in the old city of Québec, organizers of the national holiday on June 24 proudly invited all Saint-Jean-Baptiste Societies in Canada and the United States to a dazzling celebration of their common cultural origins. The music committee boosted enthusiasm when it proposed the inclusion of a major national song in the programme. Since it had no time to organize a competition, the committee unanimously chose the words of a poem written for the occasion by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The Lieutenant Governor of Québec, Théodore Robitaille, agreed to commission the music from Calixa Lavallée, a remarkable composer and performer of the day.

In the festooned capital early on the morning of the 24th, a huge crowd - citizens dressed in their Sunday best, officers and dignitaries - converged on the Plains of Abraham to attend the ceremonial mass. A hundred or so French Canadian societies and associations, preceded by their marching bands and allegorical floats, paraded through the main streets. The Québec city dailies described the ornate floats decorated with insignia representing: the towns and villages of Québec, various trade groups, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Societies of Ontario and Acadia, and associations from about a dozen American states, including those from Marquette, Michigan and Lowell, Massachusetts. The float of the Québec City Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society depicted an antique nave, with the coat-of-arms of the Province of Québec at the front surrounded by golden maple leaves. On one side of the float was a banner of French inscription - "Religiously preserve the faith and the language of the France of our ancestors" - while the other side displayed a British flag and the inscription "Pleased and proud to live under the aegis of British freedoms." In the evening, the people hurried to the doors of the Skaters' Pavillion where a banquet was being held amidst speeches and the strains of national songs. Hanging banners welcomed the vast French-speaking North American family. Under the direction of Joseph Vézina, the three bands present - the Beauport Band, the Fall River Band, and the 9th Battalion Band from the militia unit also called the "Voltigeurs de Québec" - played the new national anthem while the public listened in awed silence:

"O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux, Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!"

The crowd greeted the work with long, thundering applause: "O Canada!" had won the hearts of French Canadians, who spontaneously sang out its lines for decades after in testimony to their love of country. English Canadians took longer to identify with the song, and several English versions were advocated until lawyer Robert Stanley Weir's gained acceptance in 1908.

Everywhere in Canada, the national anthem continues to evoke deep feelings and remains a moving recognition of this country.

Heritage Minute Cast
Conductor   Jacques Thisdale