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.

***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

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #222: Beds Are Burning/The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #222: Beds Are Burning/The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil.

In 1873, a surveyor named William Gosse was in the Northern Outback of Australia. He happened upon a giant, monolithic rock formation. He christened his “discovery” as “Ayer’s Rock”, in honour of the, then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Unbeknownst to Gosse, the large sandstone formation that is one of Australia’s most recognizable geological features, already had a name. It was called Uluru. It had been called that for thousands of years, from the time of Creation, by the aboriginal population who inhabited the region…the Anangu. But, as we know from countless examples of other indigenous populations that were colonized by stronger armed white colonizers, no one cared much about who these “savages” were, what their traditions and culture were or what the names they had ascribed to places of great value and importance to them. All that mattered was that they get out of the way of expansion. So, as telecommunications were starting to improve and we were all getting to know more about other countries, that rock in the northern outback of Australia was presented to the world as Ayer’s Rock. And so it was for over a century.

In terms of the journey toward reconciliation between white colonizers and the Indigenous Peoples who bore the brunt of colonization efforts, Australia is further down the road than is my country of Canada. In the mid 1980s, public sentiment manifested itself into political will. That political will turned out to take the form of a public apology from the government of the day to all Indigenous Peoples for harm done to them as a result of colonization. Furthermore, some of the traditional territories of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were being returned to them, in a full, political autonomous sense. In other instances, the land was returned in more of a shared-custody arrangement in which the Indigenous Peoples would share in the decision-making that went on in a given region and, more importantly, that Indigenous terms would be used to name places of importance. One such shared-custody arrangement involved Ayer’s Rock which was to be jointly known as “Ayer’s Rock/Uluru”. In preparation for the signing back of “Ayer’s Rock” into Indigenous care, a contest was held to find an original song to capture the spirit of the occasion. Out of all of the Australian bands who submitted entries, the winning song turned out to be, “The Dead Heart” by Midnight Oil.

As a result of winning this contest, Midnight Oil was invited to participate in a concert tour of small Indigenous communities that were scattered throughout the Outback. Midnight Oil were always a very politically-minded band so, as they toured these small communities, they were struck by the desperate state in which many Indigenous Peoples were living. They recognized the depth of the devastation wreaked by colonization, they realized how much would be needed to rectify the situation and, as well, they could see, quite clearly, how little was actually being done to help by the government. From this tour came the inspiration for an album called, “Diesel and Dust”. From this album came a song that helped to shine an International spotlight on the plight of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. That song was, “Beds Are Burning”.

“Beds Are Burning” is a song all about making reparations to the Indigenous Peoples of Australia and, specifically, it is about returning land that traditionally belonged to Indigenous Nations. For many people around the world, “Beds Are Burning” was our introduction to Midnight Oil. What we saw when we watched them perform was what a tremendous live band they were. The passion of their principles shone through in every song they played. In many ways, for the sake of comparison, Midnight Oil are quite a bit like our own, The Tragically Hip. They are beloved in Australia, much the same way that The Tragically Hip are in Canada. Midnight Oil is a five-piece band, fronted by one of the most energetic and charismatic singers of all-time, Peter Garrett. The Tragically Hip is a five-piece band fronted by one of the most energetic and charismatic singers of all-time, Gord Downie. Both “The OIls” and “The Hip” reference the history of their homeland in their songs. Both bands have enough faith in their fans to write complex, intelligent songs that make you think. Finally, both bands believed in the idea that Indigenous cultures in their home countries had worth and beauty and were important and had been done a real disservice by white colonizers. In 1993, Midnight Oil came to Canada and joined The Tragically Hip in a festival tour that became known as “Another Roadside Attraction”. It was during this tour that Garrett and Downie were able to sit and talk and discuss their shared passion for the beauty of Indigenous cultures. At that time, Midnight Oil had completed their tour of Indigenous communities back in Australia. A decade or so later, Gord Downie would take “The Hip” to play a benefit concert in a remote Indigenous community called Attawapiskat. That journey forever changed Downie, in the same manner that the tour of the Aussie Outback forever changed Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil.

One of the things that Midnight Oil proved was that being a political band that sang songs about the issues of the day in their home country could, also, prove to be a formula for commercial success. The album “Diesel and Dust” has been ranked on Australian lists as being the #1 most successful and important Australian album of all-time. In addition to Indigenous issues, Midnight Oil has written songs about the environment, about poverty and economic disparity, as well as, a laundry list of songs about Australian history, in general. They are one of the biggest selling bands in Australian history, with sales in the tens of millions of copies worldwide. They write with passion and they play with passion; making the most of the public platform they have been given.

So, without further delay, I am going to play both “The Dead Heart” (which helped them to win the contest regarding the return of Ayer’s Rock/Uluru into Indigenous care). I will, also, play a live version of “Beds Are Burning”, too. For what it is worth, I think that Midnight Oil are an amazing band. I hope that you like them, too. Let’s go!

The link to the video for the song, “The Dead Heart” by Midnight Oil, can be seen here.

The link to the video for the song, “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight oil, can be seen here.

The link to the official website for Midnight Oil, can be seen here.

The link to the video of Canada’s own, Tragically Hip, when they played in the northern community of Attawapiskat, can be found here.

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

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for never shying away from playing songs that may come across as being political. The link to their wonderful ensuite can be found here.