When looking for people and events that help define Canadian cultural identity there is a fairly predictable list of exemplars that we tend to reference – Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Sir Frederick Banting and the discovery of penicillin, Paul Henderson’s winning goal against the Soviets in the Summit Series of hockey, and, of course, Terry Fox running his Marathon of Hope. One may also want to speak of artists who have helped to shape Canadian consciousness – from Emily Carr to Gordon Lightfoot, from Lucy Maud Montgomery to Pierre Berton. Upon his passing this past month, these lists must surely expand to include the name of Gord Downie, and rightly so.
It’s not hard to make the case for why the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie – their quirky, enigmatic frontman and lyricist – may be remembered as Canada’s “house band” and deserve a special place in the annals of Canadian cultural history. There is good reason why almost a third of all Canadians tuned in to watch the Tragically Hip’s final concert at the end of last summer, Downie’s poetic lyrics exemplify the best of Canadian art and are littered with reference to our country’s culture, history, and geography; the stories they tell encompass a vast body of Canadiana, from the mundane to the grotesque.
This close attention to the particularity of the Canadian context certainly endeared The Hip to fellow canucks (selling 3.7 million albums to date, just in Canada), though perhaps is also what prevented them from making a bigger splash beyond our borders. Sure, there are Canadian bands and artists who have sold more records, but much of their music blends safely in with everything else in the American or International market.
Not so with the Tragically Hip. Early on in his songwriting Gord Downie seems to have taken to heart that dictum of Irish poet James Joyce: “In the particular is contained the universal,” which is to say, in order to be meaningful, art should be about something specific, not generic. As once conveyed in an interview with Michael Barclay, Downie said “I started using Canadian references not just for their own sake, but because I wanted to pick up my birthright which is this massive country full of stories.”1 This birthright, this focus on the particularity of the Canadian context, is in large part the legacy that Downie leaves behind, a collection of stories that is worthy of our attention as we consider our Canadian identity.
We live in a time when it is more important than ever to consider the particularity of the Canadian story, to ask what a distinctly Canadian identity looks like. Only by understanding and accepting the uniqueness of the Canadian story can we rise to meet the challenges that we currently face, challenges that are unique to our history and our context. Attention to this particularity is important for all Canadians, but in this moment it is perhaps even more vital for the church. To our south, in the American context, we see how the deep fissures of a relentless culture war have made civil dialogue nearly impossible, and we’ve watched as White Evangelical Christianity and Republican Politics have become almost hopelessly intertwined in a toxic tribalistic nationalism.
Seeing what has taken place in the United States, I am more concerned than ever about the way that Canadians are shaped and informed by their consumption of American made cultural content. This is true in terms of how American politics has influenced the language and behavior of our own political discourse (e.g. seeing how the term “Fake News” has begun to creep in), but it is particularly true of our religious discourse.
This influence is nothing new, and I know that I have personally been influenced by American-made Evangelical pop culture since childhood – I read “Breakaway” Magazine from James Dobson’s Focus on The Family, I watched music videos where Petra & Carman talked about prayer in American public schools. But as I’ve grown older I’ve become increasingly aware of the unhealthy ways in which this brand of American Evangelicalism has influenced Canada, and frankly, I’m sick of it.
I’ve grown tired of going to Christian conferences and concerts in Canada only to find that most, if not all, of the keynote speakers and musicians are Americans. I’m frustrated with how big news stories about what American Evangelicals are doing, end up drowning out stories about what is happening, for better or for worse, in Canadian churches. If you’ll excuse the metaphor, I want the church in Canada to sound more like the Tragically Hip and less like Bon Jovi.I want the church in Canada to sound more like the Tragically Hip and less like Bon Jovi Click To Tweet
I don’t think the answer to this challenge is to define Canadian identity by negation, as “not being American” – something we have probably done too often. Nor is it to define Canadian identity along its own brand of tribalism. We cannot simply stick to the cliched stories we know about Canada. Nor can we cherry-pick the happy stories of Canada which serve to perpetuate the simplistic myth Canada likes to tell itself about being a nation of polite tolerance and diversity. Rather, I think it is time we follow Gord Downie’s prophetic example and learn to drink deeply from our own wells, returning to the massive country of stories which is our birthright.
In doing so we can learn to better hear the stories of Canada’s First Nations, stories that Downie draws our attention to in songs like “Goodnight Attawapiskat” and through his own “Secret Path” project. We may then begin to accept not just the stories of success, but stories of failure and injustice as Downie sings about David Milgaard in “Wheat Kings,” recognizing that Canada has a dark past filled with bodies we’ve “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car.” Singing along with Gord we can also find ourselves grappling with the malaise of modernity from a distinctly Canadian perspective, as we hear in the voice of novelist Hugh MacLennan as it reverberates through the song “Courage.”
Gord Downie shows us how to own our Canadian stories, and to do so with an unflinching honesty; to approach Canada with a critical loyalty that both celebrates and challenges our self-understanding. This is a posture that I think is worth emulating, and certainly one that New Leaf is trying to embody as we tell stories reflecting the Canadian Soul here on the blog, with our podcast, and through events like In the Company of Women, and The Nones and the Dones: An Evolving Story of Secularity in Canada featuring exclusively Canadian speakers who live in and speak to the rich and diverse particularities that make up our country. In light of recent events like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the announcement that Viola Desmond will be featured on Canada’s ten dollar bill, Canadians are blessed with new opportunities to recognize and grapple with the painful past (and present) that is also part of our Canadian identity, I think that’s what Gord would want us to do.
By refusing to write bland generic pop music for the American market, and by eschewing the easy mythical moose and maple syrup rendering of Canadian history, Gord Downie and The Hip created a uniquely Canadian space of inclusivity. That’s why during their final tour across our country, Molson swilling bikers in leather and pride-pin kids in skinny jeans stood together – if not hand in hand, then at least shoulder to shoulder – listening to Gord scream from the deepest part of the Canadian soul, and challenging us all to be better Canadians.