I Pity the Country.

A bird’s-eye view of North Central Saskatchewan, where I come from.

My family moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in February, 1983, when I was 12 years old. I was no stranger to the small north central Saskatchewan city; my brother was born there and I had lots and lots of family just south of the city along the South Saskatchewan River between the French towns of St. Louis and Domremy. On my dad’s side, all my roots were there, going back to the late-1880s when my great-great grandfather settled in the St. Louis region from Belgium. I spent a lot of time there in my early childhood. I wasn’t crazy about farm life at all, but I loved visiting my grandad, who took particular delight in spoiling my young brother and I rotten. He would die in 1976.

One summer day when I was little I was riding a flatbed truck across a plowed field while the adults picked rocks out of the black soil. Along the way my dad found a treasure trove of Indigenous artifacts; most thrillingly, a big, heavy stone with a groove worn into the middle, where a handle clearly fit. My dad told me it was likely a domestic tool, but me being a little kid who was fed negative stereotypes from television, insisted it was a weapon, a “tomahawk” they would beat the enemy with.

In Prince Albert in 1983, 12 year-old me asked my dad who the Residence Blues were when I saw the name in the local minor hockey league standings. He told me that was the school where all the native kids went. That’s what everyone thought back then. I figured that they were there to get a good education in a city that could afford them the opportunity that a tiny reserve could not. I innocently thought it was voluntary. I remember the building, a bleak, multi-storey cinderblock cube just north of Victoria hospital in the West Hill neighbourhood.

Moving to Prince Albert was total culture shock for me, who had spent the previous nine years in a comparatively idyllic lumber mill town, where the school curriculum was far more ambitious, the teaching fairly liberal for the time. My new junior high was the main catholic junior high in the city and had kids from all walks of life: the affluent, the comfortably well-off (me), lower-class, and native kids from the West Flat. It was run like a prison, on lockdown during lunch hour, and every day I saw fistfights between rich white preppy hockey players and poor indian kids. I heard anti-Indigenous racial slurs that I had never heard before. White boys would hurl them with impunity while most teachers shrugged and walked away.

Those Residence Blues teams (man, what a tragically appropriate name for a a hockey team) were a feisty bunch. Not exactly the best by any stretch when compared to the richer neighbourhood teams, but they played angry. Not dirty, just angry. After one of my brother’s playoff games against the Blues, in the traditional handshake line, the biggest kid on his team punched one of the Residence kids right in the face. Although the city’s racial divide hit me like a sledgehammer I was so immersed in my own self-preservation that I was compelled to ignore everything I had seen and heard, just to survive my own torment at school. I let it all slide, and by doing so was complicit.

Nearly 40 years later, we’re still coming to terms with what the Residential School system did to Indigenous people in Canada, and it all came to a head in the summer of 2021 with the discovery of hundreds upon hundreds of unmarked graves at former Residential School sites. The discovery in Kamloops rocked the country, and the subsequent discovery at Cowessess First Nation shattered it. It shattered my wife and I at home, too. One day that week I was driving home from work down scenic Spadina Crescent in Saskatoon when I saw a devastating impromptu memorial/protest at the steps of St. Paul’s cathedral. I pulled over and snapped photos, took a few moments in the summer heat to take in the moving display of children’s shoes on the steps, representing the kids who were killed by the church. Later that day, an impassioned protester strode up the church steps with blood-red paint and smeared “WE WERE CHILDREN” on the heavy wooden doors. The clergy quickly washed it off, only for the slogan to return the following morning. The catholics have blood on their hands, and no one was going to let them forget. Not now. Not ever again.

The more the hot summer wore on, the more it was revealed that the catholic church had reneged on its promise to pay survivors 28 million dollars. The Anglican and United churches had apologized long ago, but the catholics never have. The pope has never apologized in person to the survivors. Catholic churches started burning in British Columbia. Raised catholic, I never bought into it in the first place, but I had not hated the catholic church this much until this point. They’re just a bunch of dirty, corrupt old men, and nothing will ever change my mind.

Meanwhile I was also coming to grips with the horrible guilt over how my father’s side of the family is so deeply rooted in Canada’s ugly history. My ancestors settled on land that was stolen in cold blood from the Indigenous and the Metis immediately in the wake of the Northwest Rebellion. That was never my family’s land. It was stolen by the federal government, by John A. Macdonald, by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Innocent Indigenous and Metis were either murdered or displaced so my family could live there.

It is understandable why anyone living a bleak life in Europe would want to start fresh by settling in a “young” country like Canada. That’s why so many immigrants went there in the 1800s. But unbeknownst to them, what the white immigrants were walking into was a system created to make their lives comfortable at the cost of Indigenous and Metis lives. End of story. Meanwhile, generations of indigenous kids were shipped off to Residential Schools to have their indigeneity beaten and brainwashed out of them in the name of the “country”, in the name of the “church”, in the name of “white civilization”, right until 1996 when that cursed Prince Albert school finally closed its doors.

More than a century later, Saskatchewan’s history of racism towards Indigenous people continues to this day.

So what does any of this have to do with music, you might be wondering?

In one of the more prescient moves I have ever seen, Light in the Attic Records released a two-LP anthology of the music of Mi’kmaq troubadour, poet, activist, and politician Willie Dunn. Dunn, who died in 2013, was a prominent voice in Indigenous music going back to the late-1960s, but his small body of recorded work was either out of print or on very obscure labels. His music was direct and unflinching; his actions even more so. The man turned down a major-label record deal. He whispered to Queen Elizabeth II, “We are not your children anymore.” He participated in protest movements across Canada, and the constant disappointment took a toll on the man. Fearing for his life in the mid-’70s in the wake of his protest organizing, he set off from Montreal on foot into the forest with only a broken flint, surfacing in Val d’Or weeks later a broken man.

The man lived a hard life, and his politics and music was just a bit too hard for white Canada at the time. Not anymore. The arrival of Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies comes at a crucial time in Canadian history, and we’ve all had to confront our country’s sins head-on. Better yet, the music, the actual music Dunn wrote and recorded, is spectacular to hear.

The one Willie Dunn song most Canadians might be familiar with is “The Ballad of Crowfoot”, which Dunn made into an award-winning short film for the National Film Board of Canada. At ten minutes, it’s a sprawling elegy for the Blackfoot leader, and reads very much like songs from the oral tradition. In plan-spoken words Dunn lays bare the history of 1800s Western Canada, and how cheated the Indigenous people were by the nascent Canadian government. It’s Dunn’s voice, however, that draws the listener in. Possessing a smooth baritone very much like late-’60s Leonard Cohen, he brings so much sorrow and emotion to his compositions. The other ballads on this collection are similarly powerful, from “Crazy Horse” to Louis Riel”. His more meditative work like “Peruvian Dream (Part 1)”, “The Carver”, “Son of the Sun”, and “The Lovenant Chain” showcase vivid imagery, while “Metis Red River Song” accurately captures the joy of Metis music.

It’s Dunn’s songs about Canada’s legacy of cultural genocide, though, that hit especially hard. “Charlie” tells the story of Chanie Wenjack decades before the late Gord Downie nobly took up the cause, how the 13 year-old tried to walk 600 km home from his school in Kenora, Ontario only to die frozen on railway tracks 36 hours later. “School Days” tackles the subject with brutal humour, while the equally acidic “O Canada!” eviscerates the colonial system atop the melody of “God Save the Queen”. Most harrowing, though, is the legendary “I Pity the Country”, in which Dunn is at his most incendiary, his lyrics like a dagger through the heart:

The Bill of Rights throws me
In jails they all know me
Frustrated are churchmen
From saving a soul man
The tinker, the tailor
The colonial governor
They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
Of the light

It took a lot of thinking to figure out what my 2021 Album of the Year would be, but once I settled on Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies it felt like the right choice, a perfect choice. It was the one record in 2021 that shook me to the core. Never mind that this is a compilation; thematically it could not be more timely, and much of this phenomenal music is so underappreciated, under-released, flat-out ignored, that it deserves to be treated as something new, even though many of the songs are as old as I am. Besides, I reserve the right to alter my rules whenever I see fit.

In the meantime, I’m doing my very best as a citizen – and a spouse of an amazing, fierce Indigenous woman – to acknowledge the cultural genocide and the intergenerational trauma that comes with it. The University of Alberta has a brilliant introductory course in Canadian Indigenous Studies that is free to the public, and this summer I took the course during every lunch break at work for 12 weeks and enjoyed it thoroughly, passing with flying colours. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it’s the least a Canadian descendent of white settlers can do. It’s never too late to learn the truth, to un-learn what we were taught about Indigenous people in school, to listen, and to do better.

In keeping with tradition, here’s an attempt at an official, ranked top ten albums of 2020. It’s as eclectic a top ten as I’ve ever compiled, but that’s me in a nutshell. I contain multitudes! Have a great holiday and new year, and let’s all hope we come out of 2022 in better shape, because 2021 ravaged all of us. And keep listening to great music, because especially in difficult times, a life without great music is a life wasted.

1. Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies
2. Iron Maiden, Senjutsu
3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Way Down in the Rust Bucket
4. Chvrches, Screen Violence
5. Helloween, Helloween
6. Colleen Green, Cool
7. Danko Jones, Power Trio
8. Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined
9. Perturbator, Lustful Sacraments
10. Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club / Blue Banisters