True patriot love and all thy Hip command

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I finally got to see The Revenant. This is a movie I was really looking forward to as it was made by the guy who did Birdman and I thought that movie was brilliant. Also, it has a bear in it in a pivotal scene and I loves me a bear taking it out on humans. The movie was so so with acting that ranged from crazy to Yosemite Sam and action scenes so unbelievable that there were times we laughed out loud but… it was entertaining and that bear scene is something to behold.

So… why am I talking about this nutty movie with an extensive gore scene with a bear? Because I so rarely see casual violence I agree with and the premise of the film reminds me of Canadian culture and how artists here feel about their lives. Canadian cultural identity seems to be on a constant cycle of reincarnation. We discuss it, it goes away, we don’t care, it comes back… and so on. Our individual success stories are as sparse as legends of people being lost & surviving the wild. Only a year ago this summer we were in one of these cultural desert moments and treated to an election that was desperately trying to be ‘all American style’; it was really long, had loads of xenophobia and no mention of working people or minimum wage (looking at you NDP).

And then the rain turned to rainbows with Justin Trudeau and we accepted refugees, stood by our Aboriginal peoples and was promised more help for our cultural efforts.  We came back from the dead. I believe this moment of revenant – ness came to its climax mid summer when the cult band the Tragically Hip performed live from their hometown on the CBC our gov’t funded broadcaster. The last time people got together across the country to watch something this Canadian was the final game of our hockey series against Russia in 1972. Back then our teacher pulled the tv into our classroom and we watched in quiet patriotic style, riveted by the prospect that our strong and free nation would win over the tyranny of communism. Yep, it was a thing.

Most of the time Canadians feel like Leonardo Di Caprio's character in this scene.
Most of the time Canadian artists feel like Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in this scene.

The Tragically Hip event however wasn’t sports or even politically motivated. The concert became a spontaneous outpouring of love for music. And it was made by a bunch of nice, kinda’ boring guys from Kingston, one of which is dying at the far too young age of 52 from a rare form of brain cancer. They were playing a last series of live concerts specifically for their fans who have always been loyal and slavish in their devotion. But something happened over the summer, we all wanted in on this love fest. The CBC, an organization recognized universally for their provincial decision making had the entire final concert broadcast from coast to coast with no commercials. Our PM showed up and his hug with lead singer and visibly ill Gord Downie went viral for the authenticity of affection or man love depending on how you swing. As someone who usually hates this kind of big media sentimental love in, I was surprised at how deeply moved I was. This was real. This was a visceral moment that played out as quasi patriotic joy – and even the most cynical among us felt it.

It was a distinctly cultural event founded on a local, grass roots movement. Hip fans created a three decade long cultural industry. Without caring whether their band became as ‘big as Neil’ or that worse musical acts with a less devoted audience made way more money and became way bigger in the US (and now I have to write Nickelback in my blog), Hip fans came whenever the band called, bought their cds, and generally gave our Canadian Radio & Telecommunications Commission great relief as the Hip songs played continually on the radio my entire adult life – until radio went ‘extinct’. I believe it was because of this kind of sterling integrity and authenticity we rallied behind their dying front man and watched with wet eyes as he sang about “that time in Toronto with that checker board floor”. In fact it is lines like this, and unless you are a Canadian music fan you may not understand the reference, that made us all come alive again.

What the Hip did was show us that art is local and made by community, and that being a huge internationally known entity does not engender loyalty or even… fans.

There is a great lesson to be learned from this. You create work and build your audience through the relationship you have with them; you set your sites on working within that community and find joy in this simple approach. Vying to be some kind of global phenomenon that is rootless and invincible isn’t the surest path to impact. Stitching a creative life together with a love of the legends and stories from our shared history and always doing your very best for the people who support you can also be a recipe for making history.

Check out Gord Downie’s new graphic/music novel Secret Path about the residential school system in Canada. He is making the best of the time he has left; very inspiring. 

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