It has been said that Canadians don’t tell our own stories or celebrate our own myths. Our history is full of epics considered “too small to be tragic,” as The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie once sang.
Or at least that’s what people used to say, before Downie and the Hip came along. Granted, there had long been singer-songwriters who specialized in telling Canada’s stories to Canadians. Stompin' Tom Connors.
Stan Rogers. But they were largely perceived as cult figures whose unabashed Canadian-ness relegated them to the margins — quaint novelty
acts in a society awash in American pop culture.
For decades, to be a “successful” English Canadian music artist meant you were successful in the United States, which typically meant conforming to the homogenized tastes of the mainstream American marketplace. The Tragically Hip changed all that. Their songs not only spotlighted Canadian stories, but did so in a unique, unconventional, often cryptic style that sounded like alien transmissions on US radio, but still sold more albums in Canada than U2 or The Beatles.
Below are some of the true stories from Tragically Hip songs — the subjects of which range from hockey heroes and obscure artists to ripped-from-the-headlines court cases — that led the BBC to call them “the most Canadian band in the world.” (Much of the information compiled here is courtesy of Stephen Dame and A Museum After Dark: The Myth and Mystery of The Tragically Hip.)
“Well, Tom Thomson came paddling past / I'm pretty sure it was him / And he spoke so softly in accordance / To the growing of the dim”
“Three Pistols” (Road Apples, 1991)
Though the enigmatic title is believed to refer to Trois-Pistoles, Québec, the song “Three Pistols” tells the legend of Tom Thomson, one of Canada’s most influential and popular artists. Thomson’s work served as the template for the Group of Seven. The circumstances surrounding his death in Algonquin Park in 1917 have been shrouded in myth and mystery for a century.
The song prominently references Thomson’s fiancée, Winnie Trainor — his “bride of the northern woods” — who lived in a cottage on Canoe Lake, not far from the site that was purported to be Thomson’s grave. She would visit the spot regularly and whenever she found flowers left by mournful campers or respectful pilgrims she would sweep them aside to keep the ground clear.
“Little girls come on Remembrance Day
Placing flowers on his grave
She waits in the shadows 'til after dark
Just to sweep 'em all away”
Thomson came from a family of devoted naturalists (an older cousin was director of the Biological Department of what is now the Royal Ontario Museum). He was so dedicated to capturing his interpretation of the natural elements that he is said to have stood outside painting in the midst of a snowstorm, and to have kept his hands warm enough to paint, even though the rest of his body would shake.
“I say, bring on the brand new renaissance / 'Cause I think I'm ready / I've been shaking all night long / But my hands are steady”
"Born in the Water" (Road Apples, 1991)
"Downtown there's a parade / But I don't think I wanna go / Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie / I can speak my mother tongue / Passing laws, just because / And singing songs of the English unsung / How could you do it? / How could you even try?"
One of the Hip’s most political songs, “Born in the Water” is an indictment of a law passed in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in January 1990. It declared English to be the sole working language of government — despite the fact that the city, founded as a settlement by Jesuit missionaries in 1668, has a large Franco-Ontarian community.
The law was passed during the heated and tumultuous period leading up to the failed ratification of the Meech Lake Accord, which was seen by many in English Canada as granting too much power and privilege to Québec. The Sault Ste. Marie law was widely interpreted as a response to Québec Premier Robert Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause in 1988 to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling that declared Québec’s Bill 101 — which claimed French as Québec’s only official language — unconstitutional. The amended Bill 178 determined that “public signs and posters and commercial advertising, outside or intended for the public outside, shall be solely in French.”
Bill 178 was condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1993, and was amended by the Québec National Assembly that year to conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sault Ste. Marie’s language law was repealed following a provincial court ruling in 1994. In 2010, the city’s mayor, John Rowswell, issued a formal apology to francophones across the country.
“There’s no simple explanation / For anything important any of us do / and yea the human tragedy / consists in the necessity / of living with the consequences / under pressure, under pressure"
“Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)” (Fully Completely, 1992)
Hugh MacLennan, to whom this song is dedicated, is recognized as the first major English-speaking writer to attempt to portray Canada’s national character. Barometer Rising (1941), Two Solitudes (1945) and Cross-Country (1949) ushered in a new phase in Canadian literature that focused on Canadian characters, locales, events and thematic concerns.
While touring for Road Apples in 1991, Downie reportedly read MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), which MacLennan wrote during a bought of depression following the death of his wife. At one point in the story the protagonist, George Stewart, explains his failure to propose to the love of his life when he had the chance: “No prospects, too much pride. The depression. But mostly, not enough courage.”
Stewart describes his existential epiphany in a passage that Downie paraphrases for the song’s central verse: “But that night as I drove back from Montréal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”
"Fifty Mission Cap" (Fully Completely, 1992)
“The last goal he ever scored / won the Leafs the cup / They didn't win another till 1962 / the year he was discovered”
On 21 April 1951, Bill Barilko scored in overtime in game five of the Stanley Cup final against the Montréal Canadiens, winning the Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs . Four months later, the 24-year-old defenceman and his friend Henry Hudson flew to James Bay in Hudson’s single engine floatplane for a weekend fishing trip. On the return flight to Timmins , the plane disappeared. Massive search efforts proved fruitless. When the Maple Leafs training camp began that fall, Barilko’s equipment was kept in his locker room stall as a sign of respect for his loss, and hope for his recovery. But the plane wreck remained lost for more than a decade.
The Maple Leafs didn’t win another Stanley Cup until 22 April 1962. Less than two months later, on 7 June, helicopter pilot Ron Boyd found the plane wreck near Cochrane, Ontario. Barilko’s body was finally laid to rest in Timmins Memorial Cemetery in his hometown.
The 50 mission cap of the title refers to dress uniform caps given to bomber flight crews that survived 50 missions during the Second World War. The airmen would often take a playing card or sports card and work it in behind the brim to keep the front of the cap upright and pristine.
“I stole this from a hockey card / I keep tucked up under / My fifty mission cap / I worked it in / I worked it in to look like that”
“Wheat Kings” (Fully Completely, 1992)
“Twenty years for nothing, well, that's nothing new / Besides, no one's interested in something you didn't do”
The song that catapulted the Hip to the status of full-fledged Canadian folk heroes, “Wheat Kings” tells the story of one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful convictions.
David Milgaard, a 16-year-old hippie from Regina, was arrested for the rape and murder of Gail Miller, a Saskatoon nursing student, in 1969. He spent the next 23 years in prison before authorities finally admitted they had the wrong man.
The morning of Miller's murder, Milgaard and two friends drove from Regina to Saskatoon. Milgaard's friends initially provided an alibi, saying he was with them at the time of the murder. But in later interrogations, the friends, who were high on drugs and under pressure from police, said Milgaard had killed Miller.
Milgaard went to prison insisting on his innocence. For decades his mother Joyce fought a crusade for his release. In 1992, the Supreme Court finally reviewed his case. By this time, Larry Fisher, who was serving time for other sexual assaults, was a suspect in the Miller murder. One of Milgaard’s friends had also recanted his fabricated testimony, and Milgaard was freed. He sued authorities in Saskatchewan and by 1999 — with DNA evidence linking Fisher to the crime — Milgaard was officially cleared of wrongdoing.
Downie reportedly spent a year and a half writing “Wheat Kings,” completing it shortly after Milgaard was released in April 1992.
“Late breaking story on the CBC / A nation whispers, ‘We always knew that he'd go free’ / They add, ‘You can't be fond of living in the past / 'Cause if you are then there's no way that you're going to last’”
- Stephen Dame, A Museum After Dark: The Myth and Mystery of The Tragically Hip.
- Songfacts, The Tragically Hip.
- Toronto Mike, Finding Bill Barilko.
- Allan Cross, A Journal of Musical Things.