Land of the Silver Birch

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"Land of the Silver Birch" is a traditional Canadian folk song that dates from the 1920s. The lyrics are sometimes erroneously attributed to Pauline Johnson, perhaps in confusion with her well-known poem, "The Song My Paddle Sings".[1] It is sometimes sung to keep time while canoeing, and sometimes sung at campfires in a round. It is in Aeolian, or natural minor, but may be sung with a raised sixth, creating a Dorian feel.

Its subject matter is a romanticized vision of nature and the land from the perspective of an Indigenous person. Bonnie Dobson sang this song on her 1972 self-titled album. This song appears in the Paul Gross film Men with Brooms (2002). In 2005, the song was partly re-written by Canadian folk singer Dickson Reid and released on his debut album, Sugar in the Snow.

Its past popularity with the non-indigenous majority in Canada, particularly as an elementary school choir song, is declining with greater awareness of the impacts of colonization and cultural appropriation. In 2016, a Toronto public school apologized to parents following a performance of the song, describing it as "inappropriate and racist."[2] The music teacher who conducted the choir that performed the song later sued the Toronto District School Board for libel,[2] generating local[3] and national[4] media coverage.


Like most traditional songs the lyrics vary slightly. The following are representative:

verse 1:

Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
boomdidi boom boom – boomdidi boom boom – boomdidi boom boom boom
High on a rocky ledge
I'll build my wigwam (Alternate version: There where the blue lake lies, I'll set my wigwam)[5]
Close to the water's edge
Silent and still
My heart grows sick for thee
Here in the low lands
I will return to thee
Hills of the north
"My Paddle's Keen and Bright"[6]

It is related to a similar song "My Paddle's Keen and Bright" (Play), written by Margaret Embers McGee (1889–1975) in 1918,[6] which is used to keep time paddling and is frequently intermingled:

My paddle's keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight (other known colloquial versions of this line exist, including: Follow the pale moonlight, and Follow the waters light.)
Dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

Alternative lyrics[edit]

The lyrics of this song can be quite different depending on who you talk to and what region of Canada they are from. Some possible variations and additional verses:[citation needed]

Deep in the forest
Down in the lowlands
My heart cries out for thee
Hills of the North
Swift as a silver fish
Canoe of birch bark
Thy mighty waterways
Carry me forth
Though I am forced to flee
Far from my homeland
I will return to thee
Hills of the North[7]
High as an eagle soars
Over the mountains
My spirit rises up
Free as a bird[8]

A French version, "Terre du bouleau blanc", was distributed by Orff Canada.[9]

In 1979 the Canadian Cultural Workers' Committee, a musical group associated with the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), released a song on their album 'The Party is the Most Precious Thing' titled 'Death to the Traitors' which takes its melody from "Land of the Silver Birch" but with new communist lyrics about destroying imperialism and capitalism in Canada and uniting the Canadian working class.[10]

"Silver Birch" in the Scouts and Guiding movement[edit]

Since the 1930s, the song has been popular with Scouts and Girl Guides. Its origin is unclear. It is sung regularly at Canadian Scout and Guide camps, including Doe Lake, Camp Maple Leaf, Camp Wenonah (co-educational camp) and Camp Wa-Thik-Ane in Quebec's lower Laurentians.

The song is also sometimes sung at Boy Scout Camps in the United States, though sometimes "eagle" is sung in place of "beaver". Another variation is sung at the opening and closing campfires at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in Pearson, Wisconsin.[citation needed] Cuyuna Scout Camp of Crosslake, Minnesota uses this song as one of the three it uses to close its Sunday and Friday night campfire programs,[11] as does Camp Babcock-Hovey in Ovid, New York.[citation needed]

The translated Italian version "Terra di Betulla" is likely frequent campfire song for Italian scouts.[12]

Other uses[edit]

This song is performed by children in American elementary school plays about the First Thanksgiving to typify Native American lifestyle only using the first verses.[citation needed]

In the 2019 film Brotherhood, directed by Richard Bell is based on a true story of a 1926 canoeing accident in an Ontario, Canada lake at a boys' summer camp. Ten boys and a camp counsellor died, when their 30-foot canoe capsized.[13] The boys' hearty rendition of Land of the Silver Birch as the canoe trip began, is replayed throughout the film in subdued tones, reflecting the survivors' struggle to stay alive in the dark, frigid waters.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. University of Toronto Press, 2002
  2. ^ a b Shearer v. Keenan, 2017 ONSC 7171
  3. ^ Cruickshank, Ainslie (7 December 2017). "Toronto music teacher sues after principal, VP call folk song racist". Toronto Star. Retrieved 21 August 2022.
  4. ^ Brean, Joseph (6 September 2019). "Boom diddy ah da boom: 'Racist' camp song Land of the Silver Birch headed for libel trial". National Post. Retrieved 21 August 2022.
  5. ^ A scout's campfire songbook (PDF). p. 7. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
  6. ^ a b Read MacDonald, Margaret; Winifred Jaeger. The Round Book: Rounds Kids Love to Sing. North Haven, Conn: Shoe String Press Inc., 1999, Page 14. ISBN 978-0-87483-786-5. Accessed 20 August 2011.
  7. ^ Girl Scouts of the USA, 1960s
  8. ^ Scouts Canada. "Land of the Silver Birch". Scouts Canada Wiki. Scouts Canada. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  9. ^ Louise Morand. "Boîte à idées: Interpréter pour mieux comprendre" (PDF) (in Canadian French). Orff Canada.
  10. ^ "Canadian Cultural Worker's Committee – Death to the Traitors".
  11. ^ "Camp Cuyuna 2010 scout vespers & taps". YouTube. Archived from the original on 13 December 2021. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  12. ^ "Scoutwiki". Retrieved 8 October 2020.
  13. ^ "Film recounts loss of 11 lives in Ontario summer storm". Toronto Sun '. 15 July 2019.
  14. ^ Richard Bell (director), Mehernaz Lentin, Anand Ramayya (producers) (20 July 2019). Brotherhood. Canada: Industry Pictures, Karma Film. 96 minutes in.