This Saturday (August 20) marks the final performance from one of Canada’s most prolific and cherished bands, The Tragically Hip.
Following the tragic announcement in May that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the band set out on one final tour across Canada. Saturday’s show in their hometown of Kingston, Ont., marks the end of the hugely successful Man Machine Poem Tour and closes a chapter of the band’s long and rich history of touring across and celebrating Canada.
Throughout their 30+ year career, The Hip have produced 13 studio albums full of lead singer and writer Gord Downie’s poetic reimagining’s and retellings of Canada’s history. From the most memorable moments in Canadian hockey to the darkest days of the judicial system, The Hip have weaved this country’s history throughout their soaring guitar riffs and understated ballads. And really, what could be more Canadian than a song titled “The Lonely End of the Rink” or the line from “Vancouver Divorce” that reads “Sitting here at the Hortons / So you know it’s important”?
Today we’re taking a look at some of the best Canadian history lessons, as told by Professors Tragically and Hip. We’d give them tenure.
Canadians are known for our love of hockey, so it only makes sense that one of the country’s most beloved bands would cover the country’s most beloved sport. Downie’s godfather Harry Sinden was the coach for Team Canada when they played the Soviet Union in 1972. Heralded as the ‘best of the best’ competing against one another, the game was partially an act to warm relations during the Cold War, and partially to promote patriotism on both fronts. The eight-game series was well documented in the track “Fireworks,” with Downie singing about Paul Henderson’s winning goal. “If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ 72 / We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger.”
The Hip also cover the story of Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Bill Barilko in their 1992 track “Fifty Mission Cap.” Barilko went missing on a fishing trip along with his friend Henry Hudson in 1951, the same year Barilko’s last goal in overtime won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. The remains of the duo’s floatplane was found 11 years later, 35 km off course from their destination of Seal River, Que. The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t win another Stanley Cup until 1962, the year Hudson and Barilko were discovered. It’s really all there in the lyrics.
The Second World War
Though not specifically about the Second World War, the song “Pigeon Camera” is named after actual pigeon cameras that were used by the Germans in the early 1940s. Later put to use by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, pigeon cameras were literally pigeons wearing small cameras on their chests that were used as spies. (We like to think of them as the first GoPro testers.)
While the sinking of the Titanic and the Dieppe Raid have been guessed by many fans as the inspiration behind “Nautical Disaster,” Downie has confirmed that the song’s actual subject matter is the sinking of the Bismark in 1941.
The Tragically Hip’s 1991 track “Three Pistols” explores the myth of artist Tom Thomson’s death. The Group of Seven founding member was found dead near his cabin in Algonquin Park, with the events leading to the painter’s demise still a mystery. Following his passing, campers reported seeing Thomson’s ghost where he lived and painted. A ghostly sighting takes the focus in “Three Pistols,” with Downie singing “…Tom Thomson came paddling past / I’m pretty sure it was him / And he spoke so softly in accordance / With the growing of the dim.”
“Courage,” one of The Hip’s most popular singles, usually doesn’t go by its full title, which is “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan).” The title and song pay homage to the Canadian author’s 1959 novel “The Watch That Ends the Night,” with the book paraphrased in the lyrics.
The Formation of Canada
“Looking for a Place to Happen” talks about European settlers taking land from Aboriginals in Canada and the U.S., with Downie singing from the view of First Nations people with the lines “We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?” and “Jacques Cartier, right this way.” The Hip again shine a light on First Nations struggles in their 2009 track,“Now the Struggle Has a Name.”
Singing “Me debunk an American myth? / And take my life in my hands? / Where the great plains begin / At the hundredth meridian,”, The Hip explore the division between Western Canada and the Central and Atlantic region in their 1993 single “At The Hundredth Meridian.” Though the music video was filmed while the band was on tour in Australia, the song focuses on the geographical formation of Canada.
In 1994’s “An Inch An Hour,” Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s late night walk that reportedly resulted in the liberal leader deciding to retire after 15 years as the head of Canada is chronicled, with Downie singing “No struggle town, no bemused Trudeau / No solitary walks through vacant lots in moon glow.”
The Hip also take on the October Crisis of 1970, when rebel political group Front de la Liberation du Quebec kidnapped and killed Quebec politician Pierre Laporte. The group informed the police via a radio station that they could find Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car, which they did at St. Hubert’s Airport in Montreal.
Canadian Justice System
Though the song has never been recorded, The Hip have played “Montreal” in concert many times, with the song acting as their tribute to the 1989 victims of the École Polytechnique massacre. The song, a tribute to the 14 women killed during the Montreal massacre, keeps the focus on the women who lost their lives and their families who had to then prepare them for their funerals. Only the song’s final words touch on the shooter, Marc Lépine, who killed himself after his rampage. The song ends with the jarring line, “Because a coward won’t die alone.”
In “Wheat Kings,” The Hip chronicle the real life case of David Milgaard, who spent over 20 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1969, Milgaard was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of Gail Miller in Saskatoon. After the conviction was overturned and Milgaard was released in 1992, Downie wrote the song about Milgaard, his mother Joyce and her faith in her son, and the tragic loss of Miller.
When The Hip were growing up in Kingston, a big story to hit the news what that of 14 inmates escaping from the nearby Millhaven Maximum Security Prison. In the lyrics to “38 Years Old,” Downie changes it to 12 men and sings that his older brother Mike was one of the prisoners. Though Downie does have a brother named Mike, the role is fictional.
From the passing references of cities and towns to the songs dedicated to the little nooks and crannies of this vast country, it’s easier to find a Hip song with mention of a Canadian location than one without. “Born In The Water” touches on Sault St. Marie’s 1990 declaration that it was an English-only city. Napanee, Ontario’s Springside Park is mentioned in “An Inch, An Hour.” Niagara Falls pops up in “Daredevil” and “A Beautiful Thing,” while Algonquin Park is possibly the location that reoccurs the most throughout The Hip’s discography. From Isle aux Morts, Newfoundland, to Lake Memphremagog, Quebec, to Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, The Hip’s 13 studio albums act as a map of the true north strong and free.
Of course, the most famous location-based Hip song is “Bobcaygeon,” about a small town in Ontario. The song also moves to Toronto, with the line “the checkerboard floors” likely a nod to the famous Horseshoe Tavern, the same venue that housed the show that earned The Hip their record deal back in the 1980s.
While many of the places mentioned in Hip songs have been visited by the band, as Downie sings in “Fly,” there’s always more of Canada to discover. “There’s Mistaken Point, Newfoundland / There’s Moonbeam, Ontario / There are places I’ve never been / And always wanted to go.”