When I grew up in White Rock in the ’70s, life was simple. Excitement entailed things like the milkman making deliveries with his open Dairyland truck door, when he’d give us elastic bands to zing at each other.
In winter, the rare big snow day brought the whole neighbourhood together for snowball fights, making snow forts, and anything else we could do to soak and freeze our knitted mittens before the inevitable next-day melt. But outside of daily life, being Canadian meant not much more than having a flag, tasty syrup for Saturday pancakes, and knowing our Prime Minister liked to do pirouettes behind the Queen of England.
To kids of the '70s, Canadian culture wasn’t really a thing. I was raised in the sphere of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Facts of Life, and more—the television landscape dominated by Americana. The only Canadiana I remember was The Littlest Hobo and The Beachcombers, but neither of those was exactly a relatable program. I wasn’t about to hop on my skiff on the remote B.C. waters to have beers with Nick or Relic, and no German shepherd was coming to my rescue as nefarious thugs did sinister things.
My childhood soundtrack was Michael Jackson urging us to beat it and Bruce Springsteen singing dubiously about America’s questionable greatness after being born in the USA.
Then, in college, I heard about this band, the Tragically Hip. They’d been around a bit already but they were new to me at the start of 1992. By 1993, I had my chance to see them live for the first Another Roadside Attraction at Seabird Island. They played only a short set of 10 songs after Midnight Oil, but that was all I needed.
I was a Hip fan for life.
There was this guy, Gord, saying that, to be a Canadian band, an unwritten rule required having a song about a nautical disaster. Gordon Lightfoot started it all, he said, with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. Then he listed some others, and said, well, this is our song about a nautical disaster, and launched into “New Orleans is Sinking”. The crowd went fucking wild. It was the first time I’d ever had anything Canadian worth screaming about. Hey, man—thanks.
Soon, the Tragically Hip actually had a song called “Nautical Disaster”, and it’d be part of an omnipresent soundtrack as I lived under the Midnight Sun in the Yukon for a year. Me, some blue shag carpet in a subterranean suite where I wouldn’t see sunlight indoors for nearly six months, a five-disc CD changer that made me feel bad-ass, and three discs always, always, always in the changer at the same time: Up to Here, Road Apples, and Day for Night.
Living in the North, having only CBC to weather the barren cultural winter, and a soundtrack by the Tragically Hip, cemented for me what being Canadian meant.
For the first time in my life, I understood we weren’t just nicer, kinder versions of Americans. I understood that we were a country that negotiated itself into being. We were diplomatic, enigmatic, humorous, and complicated.
Whether it was the story of Hugh McLellan’s courage or the unbridled rage of being locked in the trunk of a car during the FLQ crisis or the heart-breaking inevitability of justice for David Milgaard in “Wheat Kings”, I finally had something discernibly, inarguably Canadian.
My generation was Canada’s lost generation for a while. Everything cultural on our landscape was American, so much so that CanCon was enacted just a couple years before my birth. It’s one thing to have your nation’s content forced upon you, but it’s another to want to seek it out, whether it’s served up by legislation or not.
Gord Downie told Canadian stories when most of us didn’t even know them. Even today, my Canadian history knowledge is slim pickings versus what I know about American history, and that just ain’t right, man. If kids today grow up with a better sense of what makes a Canadian, it’s thanks in part to Gordon Downie lionizing our culture and our stories, our heroes and our tragedies.
This morning, I woke up a nomad in Thailand, two years into an ongoing adventure where I’ve decided to see the world while working remotely. I got the news of Gord’s death while waiting for a pineapple smoothie in an eatery where I was the only white person. It’ll be the strangest “where were you when...?” memory of my life. For 24 months, I’ve traipsed through 17 countries, forever meeting new people who first assume I’m American. When I tell them I’m Canadian, it matters. Their face brightens. “Ah, Canada!” And maybe they don’t understand why we’re different from Americans, but they understand there is indeed a difference.
For half of my life, I never understood that difference either. But today my passport is constantly at arm’s length. On my backpack are two small maple leaf pins and a little round “Cameron” Tartan pin—the three things I keep with me, and see daily, to remind myself of who I am and where I come from. Maybe now I need a Tragically Hip pin too.
For a quarter century, Gordon Downie has exemplified what my maple roots meant. Today, we begin a daunting new future in which we must define for ourselves who we are, what we are, and how we’re differentiated from a Trumpian America. We must advocate for Canada, celebrate our identity at home and abroad, and never forget the stories that helped sculpt what Canada is on the world stage.
Luckily, Gord showed us the way, helping us not only maintain, but grow our national identity. Perhaps, in the years to come, as we struggle to maintain our national identity under the shadow of the increasingly troubled America, we can remember the Canadiana that Gord celebrated, and become the country he dreamed we could be.
When the Hip played its last concert in August of 2016—the show broadcast across the Great White North—I was in Mexico’s Yucatan. I never felt so alone watching a crappy feed of Gord raging against, and wailing over, his impending death in “Grace, Too”. It took months for me to listen to the Hip again. But, upon returning to Canada this past summer for some road-tripping, Gord and the boys came with me too.
Turns out Gord was right. I was all right when I got back again.
A couple of years back, at the age of 42, Steffani Cameron decided to sell everything and travel the world. Check out her ongoing adventures at her excellent blog fullnomad.com.