The Tragically Hip was labelled “Canada’s band” pretty early on. Definitely before the band itself felt comfortable with the title, and, perhaps, before they earned it.
On the surface the checkmarks added up: They made rock music. They were five white men from Ontario. They namechecked people and places that were willfully, defiantly Canadian, which became a source of pride for so many in this country who were thirsty for something to call their own, something specifically not American.
But “Canada’s band” was a weight the Hip didn’t necessarily want to wield, and after years of rejecting the notion, its rejection has helped redefine what it means to be “Canada’s band.” For almost 30 years, the Hip has mapped this country through song, and often with genuine affection, but it has also been vocal about its criticisms of Canada, openly challenging its legacy and its actions. By holding Canada accountable, it has modelled how best to love a country: by demanding that country be better.
As early on as the Hip’s debut studio release, 1989’s Up to Here, Gord Downie’s reference points were vast yet precise, at turns unfathomable and breathtakingly specific. On the song “Another Midnight,” he sings, “Perhaps we’re election day, pumping hands and kissing all the babies/ Ain’t no time for shadowed doubts or maybes/ Is there another way?” HipMuseum.com illuminates what could be Downie’s source of inspiration for the song, pointing out the connection between the line that references 1970 and the October Crisis in Quebec that brought Canada to the brink of civil war.
On the song “Born in the Water,” from 1991’s Road Apple, Downie sings, “Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie/ I can speak my mother tongue/ Passing laws just because/ And singing songs of the English unsung/ How could you do it, how could you even try?” The incisive song was Downie and the band calling out Sault Ste. Marie city council’s ridiculous 1990 declaration that the town was now “English only.”
This theme of challenging perceptions of Canadian identity — and who is or isn’t Canadian, what makes something Canadian — became more prominent on the Hip’s 1992 album, Fully Completely. “At the Hundredth Meridian” begins with what seems like a playful jab at the larger-than-life shadow of America (and thereby implying/reinforcing Canada’s role as positional underdog yet morally superior entity) but a deeper look at how the song unfolds reads more like a send-up of those Canadian notions of superiority. Particularly when Downie sings, “A generation so much dumber than its parents came crashing through the window.” The song paints a picture of decay, landscapes tarnished by rust and garbage and disease. It begs Canada to realize where it’s going if it doesn’t change its ways.
The record is also home to one of the Hip’s most beloved, torn-from-the-headlines songs, a plaintive retelling of 17-year-old David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction and subsequent release from prison after serving 20 years for a rape and murder that he didn’t commit. “Where the walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister,” Downie sings, “hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers.” He’s incisive in his condemnation of the failure of the justice system and multiple different government leaders who refused to grant a new trial.
Casual Canadian listeners and radio consumers might not have been doing too many deep reads of the Hip’s lyrics at the time, settling instead for the brief euphoria of recognition when they saw themselves in a song or identified with a reference point, or could say, "I’ve been there!" But more and more, the members of the Hip were finding themselves negotiating with what it meant to be “Canada’s band.” The implication was nationalistic fervour; upholding and endorsing racist policies, toques and hockey and Tim Horton’s and stereotypes.
By holding Canada accountable, they have modelled how best to love a country: by demanding that country be better.
In a fascinating and lengthy 1996 interview between the band and its fans, the Hip attempted to address its position. “We've never consciously tried to elicit a patriotic response from our fans, nor have we tried to embody that in our lyrics,” Gord Sinclair said.
“If some of our fans can only identify with us on a nationalistic level, instead of a musical one, then I think that reflects more on them than it does on us,” he continued. “Travelling abroad as much as we do has led us to appreciate where we live and who we are and I think our work reflects that; but we have definitely learned that there is no one distinct Canadian voice. All perspectives are valid, so we feel no pressure at all.
One fan asked about “flag-bearing” patriotism of the Hip’s “loyal Canadian fans” who follow them down south. “I can think of a few good reasons to wave the Canadian flag and a few good reasons not to wave any flag,” Rob Baker said.
Downie tackled perhaps the most involved question posed to the band, but it's easy to see that's he's still figuring out how to talk about his politics rather than revealing them in song. He was asked about the band's responsibility as public figures to be political, and the fan recounted Downie speaking "bitterly" about Canada Day at their July 1 concert in Molson Park in Barrie.
This was Downie's response: "I see our role or responsibility as musicians to be musical. We were a little uncomfortable with the way other musicians on the bill were treated. After an Evian bottle of urine was hurled at the stage it became a little difficult to go along with the whole fraternal brotherhood thing. Probably a minority, but we had invited all those people as our guests, and we felt that we had assembled a cool and interesting day of music. It was that day that I began to think that booze together with nationalism or patriotism was a very dangerous mixture. Ultimately, I believe everything would have been way better if we'd done the whole thing on July 2nd — we could have celebrated the Canada of the self and not the Canada that is sold to us."
Up until the last line, it's sort of a standard rock star abdication of political onus, but then he distinguishes the "Canada of the self" from the "Canada that is sold to us," which was ultimately what the band was pushing back against all along.
By 2012, the Hip's politics and sense of social justice were much more overt. They traveled with writers Joseph and Amanda Boyden and several others to remote northern town Fort Albany, Ont., to play a high school gym for the Great Moon Gathering, which focused on youth education. According to the Maclean’s article, written by the Boydens, participants came from surrounding reserves and “down south” to learn about Cree culture and reclamation. Fresh in everybody’s minds were the headlines about Attawapiskat and the desperate conditions of its housing crisis, how it forced a spotlight on that which Canada tried to keep in the shadows — its shameful treatment of its Indigenous people, its refusal to contend with decolonization. Downie provided guest vocals for a local group of teens called Northern Revolution, singing a cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” the Guns N Roses version.
That same year, the Hip released a song called “Goodnight Attawapiskat” on its 2012 album, Now for Plan A. It’s a rocker and it’s sly and scathing and heartfelt. “Attawapiskat, city by the bay!/ A diamond dazzling, Oh Attawapiskat/ You’re on your way,” Downie sings. He says “Attawapiskat” over and over — declaration and indictment and home — and the repetition is powerful and purposeful.
Indigenous rights and the environment have seemingly been at the forefront of Downie’s activism in the last four years. He has supported a variety of causes including joining forces with First Nations groups and Neil Young in their attempts to stop pipeline expansion. This has further influenced how he has continued to unpack questions about patriotism and national pride. In a 2012 interview with CBC, Downie declared that Canada needed to “get rid of the Indian Act because it’s racist” and confessed that “Even as a kid, I don’t think I bought into a lot of the mythology about Canada. And certainly not a lot of what’s called stagecraft that’s in politics now, that sort of permanent campaign. That doesn’t seem to represent what we’re about.”
In 2014, Downie told the Chronicle Herald that he felt he hadn’t written “too many political lyrics. Conversely, nor have I written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant. … That stuff doesn’t interest me and I don’t even know if I could write that if I tried, because I don’t really feel it.”
Contrast this with the experience of the Dixie Chicks in the United States. In 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines criticized the U.S. and then-President George W. Bush and the fallout derailed the Dixie Chicks’ entire career. It’s not a straight-across comparison, of course — the Dixie Chicks are women and country artists, both of which play into who is allowed to have political opinions and who isn’t — but it’s a telling one.
“I love this country,” Downie told CBC in 2012. “I love my idea of this country.”
This is how the Tragically Hip became Canada’s band. On their own terms, believing — fully, completely — in a better version of our country.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner
More to explore: