God and Canada’s National Anthem

For a quick summary of the CSA’s position, read this PDF: CSA briefing note on God and the national anthem

Overall recommendation

The government should remove the reference to God from Canada’s national anthem, and return to the original words that existed prior to the introduction of the God-reference: “O Canada, glorious and free” instead of “God keep our land glorious and free”.

Executive Summary

1. Canada’s national anthem currently invokes the blessing of a deity who is dismissed as non-existent by 1 in 4 Canadians.

In the 2001 Census of Canada, 16.2% of Canadians (4.8 million people) reported having no religion, a 43.9% increase since the previous census in 1991 [1]. Non-religious Canadians comprised the largest identifiable group adfter Christians, outnumbering Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs combined [1]. A recent poll, conducted by Harris/Decima in May 2008, found that 23% of Canadians (and 36% of Canadians under age 25) say that they do not believe in any god [2]. Thus, Canada’s current national anthem puts a sizeable fraction of the population in a position where showing love for their country also entails invoking a deity whose existence they reject. This barrier to non-theistic Canadians showing their patriotism is both unfortunate and unnecessary.

Our national anthem is an important way for Canadians to show pride and respect for their country. Secularizing Canada’s anthem would make it easier for all Canadians — regardless of their views on religion — to show their patriotism.

2. The Canadian Secular Alliance advocates returning to the original words of the anthem which existed prior to the introduction of a reference to God: “O Canada, glorious and free” instead of “God keep our land glorious and free”.

The Canadian Secular Alliance recognizes that the mention of God in the anthem reflects Canada’s Christian heritage, and salutes the great historical contributions of Christian Canadians towards the building of our nation. However, Canada’s cultural and religious landscape has shifted significantly in modern times, and the anthem should be updated to reflect this reality.

Although many think it unprecedented to alter the lyrics of the anthem, the English lyrics to “O Canada”, originally written by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, were altered many times before being enshrined in the National Anthem Act of 1980 [3]. In fact, the original version of “O Canada” contained no mention of God – Weir’s verse, “O Canada, glorious and free”, was later altered to “God keep our land glorious and free” [3,4]. Thus, the reference to God itself is the product of an amendment to the original lyrics. Returning to Weir’s original words would allow us to simultaneously update the anthem to better reflect modern Canada’s diversity of beliefs, and honour an older, secular Canadian heritage.

The French lyrics to O Canada contain extensive references to the religious imperialism that was widespread at the time they were written: “As in thy arm ready to wield the sword, so also is it ready to carry the cross”, and “Thy valour steeped in faith” [3]. Unlike the English lyrics, which can be made secular by returning to their original version, the French lyrics will require significant modification. This is a topic for a separate national debate.

3. The mention of God in the anthem is not trivial – it has real social and political consequences.

The Canadian Secular Alliance believes that in a pluralistic, liberal democracy like Canada, the government should take no official position on whether God exists, or which organized religion speaks on his behalf if he does. As a secular nation, Canadian public institutions – including its national anthem – should reflect that fact.

The mention of God in the anthem is often cited as evidence that Canada is a “Christian nation”, and used to argue for substantive public policies that undermine church-state separation. Thus, seemingly “trivial” issues of symbolism have a tendency to become relevant to highly non-trivial debates about government policy.


  1. Statistics Canada. 2001 Census: analysis series – Religions in Canada. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2003. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/english/census01/products/analytic/companion/rel/pdf/96F0030XIE2001015.pdf
  2. Harris/Decima. One in Four Canadians Atheist. June 1st, 2008. http://www.harrisdecima.com/en/downloads/pdf/news_releases/080602AE.pdf
  3. Canadian Department of National Heritage. National Anthem: O Canada. Accessed 30 May 2009. http://www.pch.gc.ca/pgm/ceem-cced/symbl/anthem-eng.cfm
  4. ‘O Canada!’ – The Story Behind the Song. Accessed 30 May 2009. http://www3.sympatico.ca/goweezer/canada/cananhist.htm

Revision date: 14 May 2014