This is not a holiday post. While Canada may not fly the flag like our neighbour to the south this year’s national day is even more muted than normal as the nation grapples with its state’s historic mistreatment of indigenous peoples. The gist of today is then more about reckoning than celebration. Just what does an invocation of nationhood even mean anymore? Today’s songs all draw on ideas or stereotypes about Canada that people in this space we call Canada are starting to question.
The Sheepdogs not only sing about Canada, they’re from Canada. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to be specific. “Up in Canada” appears on their 2018 album Changing Colours and captures the longing and nostalgia for home of an Canadian expat living in the American south. The song has a fresh country pop sound reminiscent of so many mid-1970s crossover hits, with pretty pedal steel guitar and plinky piano. The song also seems pretty lyrically positive about their northern home, though the singer admits Canada ‘has got our ways to go’. Slowpoke, another Canadian band (this time from Toronto), has written a song simply entitled “Canada.” The mood of the song shifts from jaunty to somber but the lyrics are hard to decipher. There’s something about ‘winter’s dawn’ and ‘fire’ and how ‘in Canada you always lose it all’ but just who and what is losing or being lost is unclear.
Other bands pitch an image of Canada from popular culture tropes: vernacular, sports, how we are perceived by people in other places. Guster let loose with a host of familiar Canadianism with the help of Barenaked Ladies member Tyler Stewart on a customized version of their 2019 single “Overexcited” from the Look Alive album. It was just one of eight extra versions of the song the band recorded in different languages to suit different cultures. As such, the tune has plenty of ‘eh’s and references to Tim Horton’s. While fun, it reproduces the jokey view of Canada as a generally nice place, perhaps a bit obsessed with hockey, cheap coffee, and not being American. Sure Canada is all that but there’s a darker side to the country that such characterizations tend to obscure. On his Threeep EP Matt Pond sings about getting “Calls From Canada” and he seems to be considering whether it represents a better life for himself as an American. The song is a pleasant, airy hummable tune, with nice strings and acoustic and pedal steel guitar. But really, how can Canada offer a ‘better life’ for others when it fails those who’ve been around for thousands of years?
The largely uncritical international view of Canada as ‘good’ is probably why an Ann Arbor, Michigan band decided to name themselves after the country. I mean, no one is rushing to name their band after Uganda or Belarus. Giving their 2006 album This Cursed House a spin, the songs don’t appear to deal with anything distinctly Canadian. Then again, maybe the LP’s title would seem apropos to indigenous peoples. Canada’s music is a nice rootsy folk pop that reminds me of Bombadil. I’m particularly taken with their clever use of a typewriter as a source of percussion on the instrumental “Hey Garland.”
You never really get away from the sins of the past. Sooner or later, somebody’s gotta pay. On this day the indigenous peoples in this geographic locale we call Canada are demanding change. Everybody else here needs to think deeply about just how to do that.
Today’s banner visual was designed by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Curtis Wilson. The design features swimming salmon on the side panels with an orca whale inside the maple leaf.