As a kid growing up in a village of about 500 people, pre-Internet, I was a dedicated patriot with a great faith in Canada but almost no exposure to Canadian ideas.Â Sure, there was CBC, and maybe TVO, but when youâ€™re 13, you want to watch The Fresh Prince of Bell Air, not Adrienne Clarkson Presents.1
I wished that there were Canadian artists to like, but as far as I knew, there werenâ€™t. We, as a nation, had a smattering of famous people who got famous by never mentioning they were Canadian and behaving as much like our southern neighbours as possible. You didnâ€™t become a successful artist in Canada, no matter what you did; if you were lucky, you got famous in the States, and you never looked back.
In high school, a boyfriend dragged me out to a Rheostatics show at the Market Hall, and everything changed.Â Iâ€™d been to plenty of live shows with very successful Canadian artists, but Iâ€™d never seen anything like this; it sounded like home.Â It sounded like the world I knew, the cold Winters and the hot Summers and the vast spaces between everything and the wary, mistrusting Ontarian politeness. It sounded like the perils of being an odd kid in a normal place.
It felt like they got me – not the human condition or a universal experience; me, my life, my banal, terrifying everyday world of being a weird kid in a tiny village.Â It made me feel like I wasnâ€™t alone.2
As it turned out, there were more bands who were creating music that felt like home; none quite as good as the Rheos, but reaching for the same sense of identity that came from here rather than somewhere else. I listened to Peter Gzowskiâ€™s kindness and curiosity on the radio every morning at my factory job.Â I went to Dave Bidiniâ€™s talks at the university, where he showed clips of Canadian TV from the 60s and 70s that demonstrated that Canadians used to be more interested in their own identity.
In my early 20s, a friend leant me Stompinâ€™ Tomâ€™s autobiography,3 and I read it with fascination.Â There were layers upon layers of Canadian arts that, even though I grew up in rural Canada, Iâ€™d never heard tell of. There were stories and music and art and events that were so vitally important, but so carefully ignored.Â Reading about Stompinâ€™ Tom returning hisÂ Junos in protest at the way the industry rewarded artists only for their southern successes, I was inspired.Â That same year, I read Dave Bidiniâ€™s On A Cold Road, and I think between those two, my future was cemented.Â Iâ€™d spent a lot of time prior to that postering, working merch, and working the door at shows, but something changed.
I took the step of booking and promoting my own first show; Serena Ryder and J.P. Comeau, at a cafÃ© called The Great Little Bread Co.Â It was packed to the rafters, and I, very new to this game and fired up with the notion of supporting artists, split the door between the two acts and kept nothing for myself.
In the decade since, Iâ€™ve developed an ethical code and a guiding principal that has informed everything I do; itâ€™s gotten me into a lot of trouble, and it hasn’t made me much money,4 but I think has led me to some great places.Â I hadnâ€™t intended to be a music promoter â€“ Iâ€™ve always been more of an on-stage girl than a backstage girl â€“ but I have been now for most of my adult life.Â And if Iâ€™m any good at it, I have The Rheostatics and Stompinâ€™ Tom to thank.
They taught me that there are great, dedicated artists working here in Canada, and that they represent a sense of self that Canadians were divided from for decades, as our Southern neighbours dominated our cultural life.Â They taught me that our stories werenâ€™t second-best or cheesy or poorly-told, or that they didnâ€™t have to be, regardless of what the main stream think.
And Iâ€™ve been excited to be a part of a resurgence, a rebirth of pride and the raising of our cultural voices.Â Iâ€™ve learned that itâ€™s not about patriotism â€“ that shallow, xenophobic identification with an arbitrarily-assigned shape on a map â€“ but more about place, and people, and the distinct ideas that are informed by the geography, both cultural and physical, that surrounds us while we live and work.Â And itâ€™s not about hating Americans â€“ we love and enthusiastically steal from our Southern neighbours. Itâ€™s about moving past the need to sound just like them.
I think weâ€™re at the beginning of something, of a Canadian Renaissance, and I look forward to being a crotchety grey-hair talking about it on a CBC documentary in 40 years. Â Â More significantly for me, as a life-long Ontarian, I think weâ€™re on the brink of Ontario becoming more widely-known for its incredible music scene5. Weâ€™re starting to learn and tell and re-tell our own stories, and it feels like an exciting time to be a part of the music community.
And as all of this is happening, weâ€™re losing a whole generation of people who first ploughed the soil and planted the seeds.Â Stompinâ€™ Tomâ€™s death last week was a shock; though he was 77, who amongst us didnâ€™t think heâ€™d live forever?Â He was no saint, and in his later years his complaints about the music industry began to ring false, because things had changed.Â But I think he inspired a generation to think about our own country, to start writing songs about Bobcaygeon instead of New Orleans, to try and find ways to build a career by relating to the people they knew, instead of aspiring to another cultural identity.
Iâ€™m not going to miss Tom; he wasnâ€™t part of my life.Â But I honour what he did for me, for us â€“ he defended our right to hear and tell our own stories in our own ways, and he helped to set my feet on a path thatâ€™s given me great satisfaction6 and that I anticipate will be a part of my life for a long time to come.Â And I blame him, too: if not for Stompinâ€™ Tom, if not for The Rheostatics, if not for all of these great Canadian artists, maybe I wouldnâ€™t be in this glorious, exciting, rewarding mess at all.
- I applaud the CBC’s attempt, at the time, to give us more Canadian arts, but I’m sorry to say that they went about it the wrong way, in my opinion. [↩]
- Record Body Count, in particular, is a song I identified with so clearly that to this day I picture the whole song happening in Keene, Ontario, in an extremely detailed movie in my head. It makes me feel worried about my 16-year-old self. [↩]
- Before the Fame, in particular, is a great read [↩]
- Apparently, I never learn. [↩]
- Which is, frankly, a bit ridiculously jammed with talent, to the point where even in small towns you can see incredible live original music most nights of the week. [↩]
- And stress, and aggravation, and very little moneyâ€¦ [↩]