I’m the kind of Canadian that apologizes by saying “sahr-ee” instead of “sore-ee”. This is to say, Canadian by nationality, but raised in the States. My parents made sure I always remembered that I am, in fact, Canadian. Today I thank them for that, but as an impressionable pre-teen my Canadian-ness became an easy identity to latch onto and be “that Canadian kid” in school even though I had no cultural experience to back it up with. Despite spending two weeks every summer visiting family in Toronto and vacationing in the Kawarthas, I did not have a grasp on what it meant to be Canadian. I didn’t know the names and capitals of all the Provinces, I didn’t know the history, and I didn’t know what a “Prime Minister” was. I couldn’t even tell you the ingredients of poutine.
I was a fake Canadian.
At age 13, during the most introspective arc of my early teenage years, I decided enough was enough and I executed a deep dive into my roots, or, what I thought it meant to be Canadian. This inevitably led to the discovery of The Tragically Hip.
For the unaware, The Tragically Hip (known colloquially as “The Hip”) are lovingly referred to as “Canada’s band” up north; a well kept secret that, while willing to share, Canadians are proud to call a product of their own land. The five-piece band from Kingston, Ontario gained popularity in the early 90’s through their bar-rock sound and memorable, improvised performances led by frontman and lyricist Gord Downie – a figure whom I would grow to swiftly idolize. As a point of comparison for Americans, I agree with statements I’ve read before claiming that Gord Downie is to Canada as Bruce Springsteen is to the United States (more specifically the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania tri-state area).
I suspected The Hip’s cultural relevance early on. My mental “detective cork board” full of Canadian media always placed The Hip at the center with bits of string connecting to other examples I loved. Between testimonials by members of bands like Barenaked Ladies and Rush to cameos in TV shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys, I obviously had to like this band.
That Christmas I was gifted a copy of The Tragically Hip’s ninth studio album In Between Evolution. It feels strange to admit this now, but I really did not enjoy this album on first listen. The first track, “Heaven Is A Better Place Today”, kicks off with harsh, singular electric guitar tones and a sour-tuned Gord Downie half shouting lyrics that hardly made sense to me. I remember thinking, “Why is this band so important to Canada if they sound like this?” But I had to like this band. I was persistent, and learned to looked for more Hip songs on the Internet. That’s when I listened to the song “Bobcaygeon” for the first time.
This track caught my eye not because of the odd spelling, but because it’s the name of a town in Ontario that I visited several times as a child. Bobcaygeon is tucked away in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, just between Sturgeon Lake and Pigeon Lake. For the longest time I was convinced barely anybody knew of this quaint little town my family used to visit on boat trips. To me, Bobcaygeon was where my family would dock our boat, buy some ice cream, and relax, watching boats pass through the water locks (it’s more fun than it sounds, believe me). In The Hip’s “Bobcaygeon,” it is where “The constellations reveal themselves one star at a time,” to the character in the song – a Toronto cop who regularly escapes to this small countryside town to spend time with their lover and frequently considers quitting work to settle down. I immediately loved this song. I knew I found something special; something I would cherish, dissect, and celebrate for years.
Finding “Bobcaygeon” helped focus my lens to more of The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie’s explicitly Canadian lyrics. From there it was a short search to find story-rich tracks like “Fifty-Mission Cap” about the disappearance and discovery of Bill Barilko, hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose last goal “won the Leafs the cup” in 1951. As the song describes, the Maple Leafs “didn’t win another / ‘til 1962 / the year he was discovered”. On the same album there is “Wheat Kings”, the story of David Milgaard’s wrongful life imprisonment in 1970 for a murder he did not commit, and “Looking For a Place to Happen”, starring Jacques Cartier, a French explorer who traversed land inhabited by the aboriginal people of Canada, ultimately leading to the annexation of that land from the 1500’s through the 1800’s. If other songs weren’t centric to Canadian stories, the topics within provided further reading. A few favorite examples are the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union (“Fireworks”), writer Hugh MacLennon (“Courage”), painter Tom Thomson (“Three Pistols”), and even more small Canadian towns in “Fly” (“There’s Mistaken Point, Newfoundland / there’s Moonbeam, Ontari-ari-o / there are places I’ve never been / and always wanted to go”)
One point that should be made clear is that The Tragically Hip are not a nationalist band. The difference between flippant pandering and deep rooted storytelling was present in the lyrics from the beginning. Gord Downie’s mentioning of Canadiana doesn’t exist to be pointed at and say, “oh look, there we are,” while waving a foam #1 hand covered in maple leaves. Instead what Downie provided was a discography equivalent to a beautifully written book on Canada’s culture. Within Downie’s lyrics there exists as much criticism as there is adoration of Canada’s stories. I could have learned about Canadian history from Wikipedia pages but it would not have been anywhere close to the emotional experience I had consuming The Tragically Hip’s work, song by song.
That does raise the question again of what exactly is Canadian culture – not just the history, but the living, breathing present-day culture? As a child my knowledge of Canadian representation was hockey, beer, and a strange fascination with furry lake region wildlife. Even then, why did that matter? In an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld recalls a Larry Miller joke about Canada to Norm MacDonald (a Canadian). In short, the joke likens Canada to being captured by aliens who observed America through telescopes and rebuilt it on their home planet. Upon release, you would think, “Oh great, I’m home!” only to slowly realize that “something is terribly wrong.” The point being, there isn’t a whole lot different between Canada and America – a conclusion I’m confident a plethora of traveling Americans have achieved on their own. Majority of us speak the same language, our accents hardly differ, we drive on the same side of the road, and aside from most Americans’ inability to understand why Curling exists, we play the same sports.
The Tragically Hip helped me understand some hidden corners of Canada, so for a moment I thought I could obtain and share pieces of Canadian culture with my friends. The summer of 2007 I extended my vacation north and spent a month in Toronto, staying with my relatives. At the time I must have believed myself to be a young Anthony Bourdain – a traveler who did their research and embarked on a wondrous journey of cultural discovery. Off I went to live the life of a Canadian. I wore the Roots clothing, ate poutine, saw a Blue Jays game at the Skydome, visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, drank at least one Tim Hortons iced cappuccino a day, and I essentially learned nothing. Something was terribly wrong.
Perhaps then I returned home with some fleeting sense of accomplishment, having basked in “all things Canadian” for a month of my summer. While I did have fun, my time spent up north was spent consuming stuff. After all of my romanticization of The Tragically Hip, my cultural appetite was surface level. At the age of 14, what more can be expected? Maybe I didn’t experience the Canada that Gord Downie was singing about, but I didn’t know any better either. In the following two years I devoted gross amounts of time towards learning Tragically Hip songs on my acoustic guitar, and in 2009 I had a reprisal of my month long trip to Canada. This time my cousins and I didn’t confine ourselves to Toronto. After many uncounted years, this was the summer I returned to the lakeside vacation spot in the Kawarthas that my family used to visit every summer in my early childhood. Except now I was armed with my guitar, a literal book of songs I knew how to play, and all of the charismatic bravado a 16-year-old could possibly muster.
Located about a two hour drive northeast of Toronto, the lakeside resort of Pine Vista is a picturesque gathering of cabins on Gilchrist Bay, letting out on Stoney Lake in the Kawartha region. In every sense of the word, Pine Vista is a family resort. On the first night of every weekly stay there is a “campfire sing along” held by the management. It’s a means for the guests to get together so the kids can roast marshmallows and the parents can drink – and I was there to show off. With permission, I was allowed to swap in for a handful of songs. To my memory I played “Wheat Kings” and “Bobcaygeon” by The Hip, making sure to slyly mention our physical proximity to Bobcaygeon, and I finished off with “If I Had $1000000” by Barenaked Ladies (for the kids). The next afternoon, after a day of canoeing, a guest approached me on the beach and told me how much she enjoyed my playing. She told me that “Sundown in the Paris of the Prairies” from “Wheat Kings”, referencing the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is one of her favorite lyrics of all time.
This was my first random encounter with a fan of The Tragically Hip, and it wasn’t the only one I had that week. Each night by the lakeside fire, guests would request for me to play more Tragically Hip songs. Between performances, parents would trade their fishing stories of the day or joyfully recall stories from their past. Their children would actively complain about the amount of Tragically Hip they were forced to endure on this vacation. One father asked if I knew “Fifty-Mission Cap” only because that song in particular irked his son the most. All the while we were inhabiting piney, lakeside Canada. This was surely the Tom Thomson painting Gord Downie had in mind when writing “Three Pistols”. These were the fishing trip stories Bill Barilko would have shared before his untimely disappearance detailed in “Fifty-Mission Cap”. Each of these families were living a life similar to that Toronto cop in “Bobcaygeon”. When conversation lulled, we were greeted by a loon call much like the one that begins “Wheat Kings”.
Gord Downie was writing about that Canada. An oddly specific, ironic, and homely Canada that, in one moment, jokes about using a frozen fish as a bocce ball jack on an ice fishing trip, and in the next moment, waxes poetic about a city called Saskatoon. On its own, The Tragically Hip’s music gave me a semblance of that Canada as I sat in my suburban Pennsylvania room surrounded by physical morsels of my home country. It wasn’t until a lack of trying presented an unforgettable moment with people whom I would never speak to again when I understood why Gord Downie wrote these songs for The Tragically Hip. Every song I played had more than a hint of realism to it which elicit reminiscence for everyone at that fire. Real stories that don’t require a pedestal and often end with “you had to be there” held more meaning to the Canadian identity I sought after than the tally of how many times I visited a Tim Hortons that summer.
Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip had a thorough foundation for the intimacies of Canadians. The music is a dog whistle, and when the subtleties of their songs are heard it justifies the urge to call The Hip “Canada’s Band”. That might be why, in his final years, Gord Downie broke the fourth wall of that subtlety. On the last show of The Hip’s final tour, taking place mere weeks after a heartbreaking announcement about Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, Downie spoke directly to Canada in a rare moment. Addressing the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Downie said, “He cares about the (indigenous) people way up north that we were trained our entire lives to ignore. Trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.” Downie was referring to the brutal history of Canadian indigenous residential schools where children were forcibly removed from their families to attend, with the intention of assimilating them to Canadian culture while erasing their own.
If Gord Downie was going to write about Canada, he was going to write about all of it – especially the uncomfortable subjects. Reflecting on my life of love for The Hip, Downie’s final message remains the most relevant, shining example of the identity the band represents. Canada is a country to be loved, and doing so by trading stories by a fire is a fraction of the effort. Acknowledging Canada’s flaws, big or small, is the best way to preserve these quirks. I was lucky enough to have The Tragically Hip teach me all of this through song.