The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #6/250: Goodnight, Attawapiskat by The Tragically Hip

The journey across Turtle Island is long and never ending. We walk on the land, beside the water and beneath the sky. We share this journey with all manner of creatures and living things who swim or fly or burrow. Like them, we are part of everything and everything is part of us. Of all of the legacies Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip have left behind, their respect for the beauty and importance of Indigenous culture stands at the forefront. The Hip’s early musical catalogue didn’t necessarily reflect this; built as it was upon a foundation of images and history of the land we now call Canada. But as time went by, and Gord Downie, in particular, scratched beneath the surface of our cultural identity, he discovered much of it was built upon the ruins of many Indigenous cultures that came long before the first European settlers and colonizers appeared. Songs that once invited “Jacques Cartier” to “step this way” now became more reflective of our true role in the evolution of how this land of ours truly came to be. The more Gord Downie examined it all, the more he realized that there was great beauty and wisdom that had been pushed aside and ignored in our rush to create a new world in an ancient land. The Tragically Hip, as a band, became more reflective and Gord Downie, as a solo artist, became more willing to use his musical platform to draw attention to the many wrongs that had been done to Indigenous Peoples and why those actions were such a tragedy for everyone. There are many ways in which Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip brought the full weight of their place in the Canadian musical landscape to bear, but one of the first was by way of a song called “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”.

Attawapiskat First Nation.

Attawapiskat is a First Nations community that sits on the shores of the Attawapiskat River that flows into James Bay in Northern Ontario. Like many First Nations communities, Attawapiskat existed long before European settlers arrived, but its present designation as a community came about as a result of treaties that established trade routes for colonial organizations such as The Hudson Bay Company. Having access to waterways allowed those who worked for the Hudson Bay Company to acquire goods, such as beaver pelts, and move them easily for shipping overseas. Because of the new economy imposed upon them by settlers, many First Nations communities, such as those near Attawapiskat, attempted to adapt by using their trapping skills to procure inventory for the white traders who had set up shop on the land. For a while, this arrangement worked, but in time, once the supply of beaver pelts was exhausted, the traders moved on to new, resource-rich areas and left the Indigenous communities behind to survive as best they could. For many of these communities, survival was difficult and life became very hard. Consequently, the community of Attawapiskat has a long history of existing in substandard conditions. Basic rights such as access to clean drinking water have been issues for entire generations there. Many people suffered from addictions, the rate of teen suicide was higher there than the Canadian average, and many of the youth of the community saw little hope for themselves in the way of a brighter future. For many youth of Attawapiskat, growing up meant eventually leaving their community to attend school in settler communities such as Moosenee and Dryden. Being an Indigenous student far from home was hard for many of them who came down from Attawapiskat. Assimilation into white culture was a bizarre experience at best. For many, it scarred their lives forever. So, the idea that the community of Attawapiskat could build a school of their own and rebuild their culture through education was an important one. However, getting a new school built was proving to be difficult. This is where the Tragically Hip came in.

The Tragically Hip perform in Attawapiskat Community Centre.

The community of Attawapiskat decided to hold a concert as a way of raising money that would go toward the new school. Local youth were encouraged to form bands and participate. But, it was felt that the concert stood a better chance of raising more money if they could get someone “big” to play there. Gord Downie had already spent some time traveling in the northern regions of the land so he knew of Attawapiskat and what the community was attempting to do. So, The Hip agreed to come up to play at the benefit concert. They headlined a bill that included several bands composed entirely of local youth. At one point, Gord agreed to sing on stage with one of the bands. The female lead singer immediately stepped aside to give Gord the spotlight. Gord refused to let her sit any songs out, admonishing her band, good-naturedly, to never let anyone silence their singer. They performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” together. Gord claimed that being at Attawapiskat deepened the feelings of respect he had for Indigenous Peoples and that he took that feeling with him everywhere he went afterwards. From that point on, he was known to often close shows from all over North America with the words, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat!

Hello! Good evening, folks!

We are the silver poets

Here in our thousand mile suits.”

The journey toward reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples is long and remains far from complete. Many people have worked tirelessly to make such a journey happen. However, every movement tends to have someone who becomes its “face”, and for many, that face belongs to Gord Downie. Gord devoted much of the last few years of his life to raising awareness of the beauty of Indigenous culture and of our role in the history of what has happened to Indigenous Peoples all across this land. But, with every telling of Chanie Wenjack’s story via “The Secret Path”, with every National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, with every “Orange Shirt Day” held and every grave discovered at a former residential school…we all move forward together. The journey toward reconciliation is slow and it is painful, but it is necessary and it is happening. I am very grateful to folks such as Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip for shining their spotlight on this shameful aspect of my own cultural history. I am sad that the foundation of Canada…a country I take pride in being from…came to be because of exploitation and genocide. The soundtrack for my own road trip toward reconciliation starts with today’s song, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”. Feel free to make it your song as well.

If you have any other songs that would work well on this shared journey of ours toward making things right, feel free to add them below. Until then, follow me if you wish as we walk across Turtle Island in search of peace and love and harmony. Here are the Tragically Hip and their great and important song “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “Goodnight, Attawapiskat” can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for the community of Attawapiskat can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Downie-Wenjack Fund can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

6 thoughts on “The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #6/250: Goodnight, Attawapiskat by The Tragically Hip”

  1. Gord was absolutely right , the people of Attawapiskat are amazing folks . I worked up there many times during evacuations for floods , fires and water emergencies . The landscape naturally breathtaking but the atrocities you wrote about have left a lasting impression on me . 💔

    1. Gord was right about a lot of things as it turns out. Glad that you got to actually go to Attawapiskat and lend a hand. Working there must be a tough gig. Not to mention living there. A lot needs to change in our world…our treatment of Indigenous Peoples ranks high on my list.

  2. Thank you for this. The Tragecally Hip came well after my own youth, st a time I was paying little attention to music of any kind. I had no idea. Now, in my older years, I will have to investigate their music, and the music of others.
    The series of songs I am going to suggest for you are not about Canada, and were written by Ametican songwriters about the indigenous peoples who lived there. But in those days, before the coming of the whites, there were no such boundaries. Turtle Island was Turtle Island, and belonged to and was shared by everyone that lived there.
    The band called themslves, ironically, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, and they are but a minor note in the history of rock and roll, but this series of songs made an impression on me before I ever knew of my indigemous ancestry. I had been brought up white by a father who had such a hatred for his ancestors, a hatred I have never understood nor ever will, that he never told his children who they were. This was only discovered after his death, although in retrospect it should have been obvious. Those were sad times.
    Also sad was the colonial language of the time. The series of songs was called “Memorial to the American Indian.”

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and these songs. I will be sure to check them out. If you wish to check out the Tragically Hip, it is their later work…starting with “Goodnight, Attawapiskat” that focussed more on the plight of Indigenous culture in Canada. Up until then, The Hip sang about Canadian history and lead singer, Gord Downie, was thought of as “Canada’s poet” because he wrote about Canada and Canadians. However, after seeing the conditions than many Indigenous Peoples were living in, Downie became a changed man and, in Doug so, he used his public platform to begin a national conversation about our true history and of the harm that Europeans caused to the Indigenous Peoples who were already living here. Downie’s greatest contribution to this national conversation was an album he released as a solo artist called “The Secret Path”. This album tells. The story of the Residential School system and one boy, in particular, named Chanie Wenjack who escaped from one such school but who died on the way back to his home that was six hundred miles away. Here is a link to a live performance of this story. Thanks again for your comment. It was nice meeting you.

      1. Just curious. At times it sounds like you yourself are of First Nations heritage, your last name suggesting an Irish or Scottish mix, which would now fall under the label Metis, which is the label I use for myself.
        I am on, so far, a one-person crusade to change the label to OHITI, or Original Human Inhaitant of Turtle Island. I would also like to reclaim the name Turtle Island for all the Americas, though I do not know if that term exists in Central or South American cultures. At least North America should return to being called Turtle Island. Any thoughts on my crusade?

      2. I am non-Indigenous. My ancestors came from the Highlands of Scotland. Because I am non-Indigenous, I do not feel that it is my place to offer an opinion on your crusade. But, I will say this much, I think there is much to admire about Indigenous culture and that, for what it is worth, I think our planet would be in much better shape if we all practiced land stewardship and how we interact with nature and with each other, if we followed Indigenous teachings instead of greedy capitalism. In my non-Indigenous mind, I view Turtle Island as more of an idea or a concept than of a physical place. To me, when I think of Turtle Island, I think of the interconnectedness of me to you and you to me and of us to others and to the world. It just makes sense to believe that we are all in this life together and that things work better when we go forward in harmony and with mutual respect. I don’t know if I sound all pie-in-the-sky or what but, I try to live a helpful life and be a good man. That is all. I write about music so I can reach people and bring some joy into their day. I am certainly not a major player in the social media scene but, my words found you somehow so that is something that makes me happy. Feel free to follow my writing if you wish. I post about classical music on Mondays, “Canadian songs” on Tuesdays, songs from movies and musicals on Wednesday, I look at new songs in the Top 40 charts on Thursdays and on Friday, I take requests and call that series, Reader’s Choice. I wish you well on your journey. Any quest to bring peacefulness and harmony into our world is alright by me. Good luck.

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