The week Justin Trudeau came to power, unseating a decade of Harper conservatives, three Canadian acts — Justin Bieber, Drake and the Weeknd — fought for North American pop chart dominance. To many politically minded observers, the confluence of a hip, youthful prime minister and pop cultural relevance recalled the mid-'90s era that was dubbed “cool Britannia,” when young Britians voted in Tony Blair, unseating the Thatcher conservatives, while Blur and Oasis battled on the pop charts. The hoopla was enough that, in a widely circulated article, The Guardian openly wondered, “is this Canada's Cool Britannia moment?”
To answer this question, we travelled to Ottawa on Canada Day and asked the artists performing at Prime Minister Trudeau’s inaugural national birthday celebration: is Canada “cooler” now than it has ever been?
For Beatrice Martin, better known as Coeur de pirate, performing for the 44-year-old Liberal leader was nearly too much to bear. Standing in her trailer following the afternoon performance, Martin is visibly shaken (what she would later confirm as “no chill” on social media) but eager to talk about the pride she feels under the new government.
“We've always had this reputation that we're like the nice ones with our free health care, but for a while [under Harper] I didn't feel it was representing me as a Canadian. I didn't know how people perceived us but I don't think they saw us that way anymore.
"Now we're cool again. There are so many Canadians that are making it abroad and it's awesome. They're really representing us well, maybe not Bieber but the rest is good,” she says, smirking. “If somebody would have asked me to do this four years ago I would have said no because I didn't want to get into politics. Now with everything that's going on, I think I need to be proud of my heritage and what I stand for. It's great to be different here. We celebrate diversity every day and I don't feel scared for my life here. It's a great country and it's our sanctuary.”
Fellow performer and Toronto-based hip-hop turned pop singer Coleman Hell claims the nation’s newfound coolness abroad has opened doors for him as an emerging artist.
“I think Canada used to be more apathetic about Canadian music because it didn't cross over [to America]. There was sort of this grass is greener type thing,” he says. “For me, I moved into Toronto during the whole transition into Canada becoming more cool in the consciousnesses of the world. In my mind, I attribute it to the Weeknd and Drake. I don't know if [it’s fair] to pinpoint it to specific musicians but that's what it felt like to me. It gave me newfound hope as an artist.”
Cuban-born, Grammy-nominated Latin-jazz artist Alex Cuba, who is closer in age to the new prime minister, has a more holistic viewpoint. “The truth is I always thought it was cool,” he says. “Since the moment I moved here in 1999 something in Canada said to me, 'Yes, you're welcome.' This is a country where we welcome people no matter what and we all work together — putting our voices into one common thing, which makes the country Canada.”
“For sure, musically speaking, to have been beside but geographically together with the United States has done something to Canada that [has affected it], but now it's our moment to shine,” he adds. “I think it's time now, for this nation with such a little population beside one of the biggest in the world, to say who we are. I think it's happening.”
Despite the generally positive rhetoric, not everyone is convinced.
Canada Day MC and Canadian hip-hop icon Kardinal Offishall argues Canada’s hipness is nothing new. Speaking moments after meeting the new prime minister, Offishall claims “[Canada is cooler now] only to people who weren't cool.”
“Kids always knew that we were cool. I think what's happening now is the not-so-cool Canadians are like, 'Oh yeah, we're cool' but it's always been this way. In my eyes anyway,” he says. “I've always thought of Canada like this; I've always represented Canada like this. Nothing has changed, it's just other people are starting to be like, 'Eh, you guys are cool' and I'm like, 'That's what I've been telling you!'
Worried he’s not being clear, he presents a sports analogy.
“It's kind of like being a part of a sports team and maybe you've had starters that knew you were going to win the championship the whole time but once you get into the finals that's when the bench is like, 'Yeah, we are pretty good!'” he explains. “That's what's happening right now.”