The Great Canadian Road Trip: the Stories Behind Canadian Songs and Canadian Places…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.

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