Music and Culture graduate student investigates ‘Canada’s band’ and their critical counternarratives to Canadianness.

By Nick Ward

On the evening of August 20th, 2016, Canadians across the country gathered around their television sets, computers, and smartphones to watch The Tragically Hip’s final show.

The event was unique as it served as both a countrywide celebration and an instance of national mourning. As fans sang along to hits like Bobcaygeon and Courage, they knew it would likely be the last time they’d see lead singer Gord Downie perform.

Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and he, in part, intended for the concert at the K-Rock Centre in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario to be a thank you and a wave goodbye to his many passionate fans. But more than that, Downie, aware of his stature and influence as a national icon, wanted to leave Canadians with a more important message.

During the intrepid thirty-song set by The Hip, Downie called out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who was in the audience:

“(Trudeau) cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there

And what’s going on up there ain’t good,” he exclaimed. “It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been …(but) we’re going to get it fixed, and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.

You know, Prime Minister Trudeau’s got me. His work with First Nations. He’s got everybody. He’s going to take us where we need to go.”

The power of Downie’s activism lies in the fact that The Hip are considered ‘Canada’s band.’ Although they are a deeply principled group, they are most often associated with the uncritical nationalism found on cottage decks and in the change rooms of beer league hockey games from coast to coast. However, for those who have listened closely, these rosier portraits of Canada have never really been the portrait the band sought to paint.

Knit tightly within The Hip’s music has always been a working class dissection of the broader idea of Canada. While cottages and hockey are undoubtedly a part of the band’s purposeful prosaic approach to articulating the nation, their mention is usually a tactic to criticize Canadian convention. In other words, it has been The Hip’s artistic mission to subtly lift the veil on the whimsical presuppositions of Canadian society.

As revealed in his call to Trudeau, Downie dedicated his last days trying to raise Canada’s darkest curtain. A facade which has too effectively concealed the nation’s greatest shame—the colonization and relentless systemic abuse of Indigenous peoples.

Downie’s final artistic release, Secret Path—a solo album chronicling the tragic life and death of twelve year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died from exposure while trying to flee his residential school to return home to his family in 1966—aims to centre Indigenous issues in our national dialogue.

“Chanie haunts me,” Downie posted to his Secret Path website. “His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be rewritten. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. ‘White’ Canada knew—on somebody’s purpose—nothing about this. We weren’t taught it in school; it was hardly ever mentioned.”

Before his death on October 17th, 2017, Downie was appointed to the Order of Canada for his work on Indigenous issues, and while this might have been a celebration for some, for others, it was contentious.

Undoubtedly, the Hip deserve to be celebrated for their impressive accomplishments and altruistic intentions, but they also leave behind plenty of questions. Given their influential status as socially active, but undeniably privileged national icons, a greater understanding of ‘Canada’s band’ is simply necessary.

As Master’s student in Music and Culture, Michelle MacQueen livestreamed the group’s goodbye performance on that August night two years ago, she made the decision to take on this major task by focusing her thesis on The Tragically Hip.

Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are. – Gord Downie

MacQueen had never been a diehard Hip fan before the Kingston show, but in that collective moment, she recognized the significance of The Hip as a vehicle to better understand art and music in Canada, and well, Canada itself. “I found the amount of support and excitement around this final concert really fascinating, and I thought it was incredible that so many people—truly from across the country—were so enthusiastic about the band’s career and seeing them in concert. It seemed like a national phenomenon,” she said.

With that, MacQueen chose to dedicate the next years of her life to the interrogation of Downie and the group’s iconic artistic position within Canada.

Notwithstanding the fact that she was totally compelled by the impact of the band, MacQueen doesn’t believe The Hip’s surface artistic output should be understood as anything particularly unique. “In many ways, they’re kind of a generic rock or alternative rock band that formed in the mid-1980s. Musically, they do appear to blend a lot of different musical influences, but overall, they have a sameness to their sound: you can easily identify The Hip’s music,” she explained.

Recognizing that the band can be read as rather ordinary, MacQueen looked to interpret their extraordinary national resonance. Her research was able to attribute their status as Canadian icons to seven primary factors:

Touring: Since the band started in the 1980s, The Hip have defined themselves as a live act and have toured incessantly across the nation. As they became more successful, they graduated to larger venues and ultimately performed cross Canada arena tours, playing the largest venues across the nation.

Lyrical references: One of The Hip’s fans, Stephen Dame, extensively catalogued the band’s lyrics and noted 291 references to Canada/ Canadian place names, people, events, etc. within their lyrics. This number of Canadian references in their songs strengthens the connection between the band and Canada.

National celebrations: Since their breakout success, the band has often headlined many national celebrations, such as Canada Day. Perhaps most noteworthy is the Great Canadian Party in 1992, where they played multiple live shows (that were televised) in celebration of Canada’s 125th anniversary of Confederation.

Success in Canada: The Hip have achieved a high level of popular, commercial, and critical accomplishments at home in the Canadian music industry and wider pop culture. In addition to this, the band has also received accolades outside of the music industry, for example in the

1990s, they were given the key to the city of Kingston by the mayor, and more recently, the band was awarded the Order of Canada.

Lack of success elsewhere: The Hip never really broke into international scenes or markets. They had some mild success in the US and Europe and maintained a sense of critical appeal through invitations to tour with Robert Plant/Jimmy Page, and The Rolling Stones. However, they never gained the level of success they have in Canada.

Fans: MacQueen believes this is perhaps most important to consider. It seems that The Hip’s nickname of ‘Canada’s band’ stems from a grassroots initiative by the fans. Canadian iconography is very common at Hip shows—wearing maple leaves, bringing and waving Canadian flags, singing O Canada before the band takes the stage—all these things frequently occur at the Hip’s shows and strengthen the association of The Hip as ‘Canada’s band’ and as a cultural entity in Canada.

Time and Place: Yet it is important to contextualize The Tragically Hip in relation to this success as ‘Canada’s band.’ In many ways, their rise to being representatives of the nation was a result of many different factors coming together. The band’s location in Kingston in the late 1980s and early 1990s allowed them easy access to the centralized locations of the Canadian music industry. Further, The Hip’s musical style is quite representative of the dominant commercial rock music styles of the 1990s in North America. As a result, their path to mainstream success could be considered relatively straightforward. They were within close proximity to major industry resources, and their music would have been easily marketable as their sound aligned with what was already widely popular. Perhaps the most significant factor to consider is the Canadian content regulations. As The Hip were establishing their career, there was already a relatively concrete framework in place to foster, cultivate, and support Canadian musicians in their endeavours to achieve a successful career at home in Canada. In many ways, the nascence of The Tragically Hip’s career coincided with the refinement process that created the immensely successful outcomes of these regulatory efforts. Therefore, this resulted in The Hip highly benefitting from the Canadian content regulations as well as from newly formed cultural institutions, like MuchMusic. Without the help of these efforts to prioritize Canadian music, MacQueen argues that it is dubious whether The Tragically Hip would have achieved the levels of success they have or if they would ever reach the status of ‘Canada’s band.’

To arrive at these conclusions, MacQueen consumed and analyzed a staggering amount of Hip content. Not only did she examine the band’s career through their media interviews, music, and their critical reception, but she also put a great deal of attention towards existing scholarship on constructions of Canadian national identity. In doing this, she considered official policies like multiculturalism and performed critical analyses from a myriad of disciplines from politics to philosophy. Ultimately, she evaluated how these notions of national identity and construction of federal narratives play out in the realm of music and inform The Hip’s artistic output.

MacQueen discovered that most often in The Hip’s music, these narratives are presented with a bleak cadence. The intricate stories told by the band typically do not reflect the idea of Canada as a tolerant, benevolent nation. “The Hip are painting a picture that highlights some of the flaws in Canada through their lyrics, and I found that the band’s choice of musical language takes on a supportive role to the critical tone of the lyrics,” she explained. As MacQueen affirms, this deeply contrasts the uncritical, patriotic fashion in which The Hip are frequently enjoyed.

“If we look at how The Tragically Hip have been received, it’s quite nationalistic: fans bringing Canadian flags to their shows, audiences singing O Canada before the band takes the stage,” said MacQueen.

“And if we look at the final show in Kingston, it was officially a national event with all the governmental affiliations: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance wearing a Tragically Hip t-shirt and did an interview beforehand. The CBC even stopped airing the Olympics to broadcast the show nationally on practically every medium.”

For MacQueen, the paradoxical essence of the band’s existence has been one of the most stimulating aspects to research, and she is quick to cite a few definitive examples of The Hip’s critique of Canadianness. The band’s popular song Wheat Kings is about the failures of the Canadian justice system in the David Milgaard case as he was wrongfully imprisoned for over 20 years for a murder he did not commit, explained MacQueen. Bobcaygeon references anti-Semitism, riots, and discrimination in various Canadian cities and Goodnight Attawapiskat confronts issues in an Indigenous community and the abject failure of the Canadian government to Indigenous peoples.

“All of these stories are providing a more critically aware and socially conscious construction of what Canada is. So, they have this iconic national platform as ‘Canada’s band’, but the stories they tell about the nation are not blindly celebratory and nationalistic—they recognize and discuss critical issues in Canadian society,” she said.

Before his death, Downie realized his voice would never be louder, so, as mentioned, he used the moment to encourage his fellow Canadians to emulate his critical disposition of Canada, making his own tragedy a very complex national moment. “I don’t think I could speak for all Canadians, but I think Downie’s illness, death, and the end of the band did have a significant national impact,” observed MacQueen.

According to MacQueen, one need only to look at the impressive amount of media coverage and reaction dedicated to Downie’s illness and death to prove her hypothesis. Upon the announcement of Downie’s passing, the Prime Minister even chimed in with a teary goodbye press conference in front of the National Press Gallery. “We lost one of the very best of us,” Trudeau sobbed. “Gord was everyone’s friend. He’s who we were, and he loved it with everything he had. He loved every hidden corner and aspect of this country. He wanted to make it better … that’s why his last years were dedicated to reconciliation. I’ve drawn inspiration from this, and we are less a country without Gord Downie in it.”

It has been a fascinating case study for MacQueen to witness and decode the PM’s engagement in the band’s goodbye. “I think it’s important to remember that Justin Trudeau is, in many ways, first and foremost, a fan. He has spoken about seeing The Hip live on campus when he was in high school and university and celebrating them as his local band,” remarked MacQueen. “Also, being a politician and the Prime Minister of the country, he does have a position to take on Canadian culture and issues in Canada. I think he definitely recognizes the iconic position of The Hip in Canada and therefore his position on the band’s farewell could be viewed as appropriate—national icons need a nationally recognizable goodbye.

Further, I think the connection could be made between some of Trudeau’s agenda items and some of what Downie discusses in his lyrics. In this sense, perhaps this alignment between political issues and a band singing about the same issues was a good match—a kind of consensus that Canada is a work in progress.”

Although MacQueen acknowledges Downie and the Hip’s compassionate mandate, she is mindful of celebrating them as Indigenous champions and is acutely aware of the critiques surrounding their activism.

“I think it’s important to remember that Downie is not the first to make this kind of call to action. There is a long legacy of activists, particularly Indigenous activists, who have been consistently fighting for these issues for such a long time,” she asserts. “These criticisms are important for discussions of what makes a good ally—working closely with communities and letting them speak to the issues, but providing them a platform to do so. Allies are important for making voices heard on a large platform for regular citizens and also for the political sphere to listen and create change. But allies should recognize when it is necessary to pass the mic and get out of the way.”

While she is cautious to extol Downie, MacQueen does feel it is important to recognize his role and position as an ally to Indigenous communities in Canada given that he has been heralded as a staunch ally by many Indigenous peoples. “I think it is very admirable that Downie used his platform—especially during this crucial time given the status of his health— to speak to such important issues in Canadian society and to a vast audience. Given his platform, his power and influence, there was a very high level of media attention surrounding this final message, and hopefully, with this discourse in the public consciousness, some changes can occur.”

To their concluding act of supporting Indigeneity by criticizing the country that embraced them so tightly, Downie and The Hip’s space in Canada was ornate to the very end. Thankfully, for those curious about the Canadian legacy of The Tragically Hip, MacQueen has demonstrated immense passion and skill as a young researcher on this key topic and her project will be available for public consumption shortly. As MacQueen enters the home stretch of her Master’s degree in the Music and Culture program and has decided on her next move as a researcher, she has taken some time to reflect on her time at Carleton studying music and culture.

“This program has been really fantastic. It’s quite a small program, and all the graduate students are very supportive of one another, and it’s a really engaging environment. The faculty here are so knowledgeable, and all are very inspiring, engaging, and supportive. Whether in the classroom or just in hallway conversations, you can really tell that they want us to have the best learning experience.”

In particular, her thesis supervisor, Professor William Echard, has been an excellent source of encouragement for MacQueen and has helped her to continually broaden her knowledge and produce the highest quality of work possible.

“Learning from and working with Professor Echard has been such a positive experience and I feel like I’ve grown so much. Also, Anna Hoefnagels was the Graduate Supervisor when I started the program, and her leadership and guidance has been extremely constructive and really admirable.”

As a quickly rising academic star, MacQueen will continue to enlighten us for the foreseeable future. She will begin a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in September 2018, and while she does not have any immediate plans to continue explicitly researching The Tragically Hip, she will continue to explore the broader themes that have come out of her work on the band. This will include the connections between Canadian music and politics, music’s role in social justice, music’s ability to spark discussion on politics, identity, and alliances in Canada.

“These are all areas that I found to be not only interesting, but also very important. I think that these areas of research in arts, humanities, and social sciences can change how we interact with one another and how we enact a sense of belonging,” said MacQueen. “That’s why I want to pursue these areas further throughout my Ph.D.”

Specifically, she plans to continue to research how music can foster social change and shape what we think of our nation and communities.

“Groups like The Tragically Hip have celebrity status and access to a range of media platforms, but I’m interested in seeing how people without celebrity status can inspire discussion, conversation, and change within their communities through music.”

Gord Downie once proclaimed, “I have no illusions of the future. Or maybe it’s all illusion. I don’t know. I’ve always been ready for it.” It certainly sounds like MacQueen is prepared to tackle her next pursuit.

Thursday, August 16, 2018 in
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