The Battle of Passchendaele ended 100 years ago today. It is also called the Third Battle of Ypres and the “Muddy-est, Bloody-est of the whole war”. The latter is what Alberta infantryman Arthur Turner called it in his diary.
Passchendaele is a small village in Belgium near Ypres close to the border with France. British troops came to the aid of the French there in July 1917. Australian and New Zealand divisions were brought in early in September, then the Canadian Corps in October.
The Canadians weren’t supposed to be involved. They’d just come off the terrible Battle of Vimy Ridge in July. They were assigned to diversionary attacks on the Germans occupying nearby Lens, France. But the British Commander, General Douglas Haig, ordered them in over the protests of the Canadian Commander General Arthur Currie. Too much of a mess, too uncertain of a strategic gain, and the likelihood of too many casualties.
Be that as it may, General Haig was Commander in Chief and so his plan went ahead. And that meant reinforcements. The British and ANZAC troops were exhausted and their numbers drastically depleted. They pulled out and four divisions of the Canadian Corps moved in.
General Currie decided the first thing to do was clean up the place. The Canadians had fought two years earlier at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, and Currie and the men could see the bodies still there. Bodies of men, mules and horses had been churned up from their shallow graves by the renewed fighting. So they reburied the dead, built roads and board walks, brought in supplies.
Battle of Mud
The 2nd Battle of Ypres was marked by gas warfare, the 3rd Battle by mud. Complete desolation of the land from the years of battle and heavy rains caused the drainage system to collapse. “The mud is a worse enemy than the German” said NZ divisional commander Sir Andrew Russell.
Two months of horrific fighting and losses by both sides, but the Canadian troops prevailed. The Germans were pushed back and the battle ended November 10th.
Then in December, General Haig pulled out the Allied troops guarding this patch of land won at such expense. The Germans moved in again. After two more battles of Ypres, the Allied Forces won it back by the end of the war a year later.
British soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon was not at Passchendaele. He was in hospital, but could well imagine what it was like. He could imagine too the process of ‘king and country’ that took so many young men to fields of slaughter like it. In October 1918 he wrote Memorial Tablet.
So, for Canada Day, I looked for Canadian songs that evoke a sense of place, of history. Those songs that everybody knows a few lines of, to sing at public events and maybe around campfires.
The anthems, hymns, folk songs and popular songs that have become ingrained in our national psyche. The nation’s songbook, I suppose.
Canada is a big country, with vastly different geographies and histories. So songs may reflect its whole or, more likely, its parts. But the great songs, the memorable songs, can resonate with the whole even while speaking about a part.
“O Canada” is obvious: “the true North strong and free”. I leave to others the revived dispute about the words “In all thy sons command” but recommend Robert Harris’ wonderful piece on the anthem’s history on The Sunday Edition June 25th.
“The Maple Leaf Forever” is the older anthem, written in 1867 by Alexander Muir. But I don’t think it’s well known. I needed help to find out what it sounded like. On YouTube, you can see Anne Murray singing it at the closing of the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999. A lovely and singable tune, but it has not survived as a well-known national song.
I can’t think of any other national hymns or unofficial anthems that exist in Canada and are played, along with the national anthem, at official events. “God Save The Queen” is played at Royal and Vice-Regal events. And, Lord spare us, maybe the Centennial “Ca-na-da” song is still played somewhere. But for regular national events, our roster of music is much thinner than in the USA. There, many national hymns, marches and unofficial anthems are still played regularly and are in the nation’s corporate memory. (See my A Nation’s Songs.)
Provincial anthems? There’s the “Ode to Newfoundland”, a national anthem until 1949. My favourite rendition is by Vonnie Barron and Esther Squires, although its release in the 1980s caused controversy due to its unorthodox arrangement. Thankfully, changing it to Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador, to my knowledge, isn’t under discussion. (Click Vonnie and Esther’s names to listen.)
Quebec has loads of national anthems. “O Canada” was originally one of them. “Gens du pays” is an unofficial anthem from 1975 by Gilles Vigneault. Another is “Mon pays” written in 1964 by Gilles Vigneault for an NFB film. A decade later, the tune became a big part of the disco era. “From New York to LA” puts English words, and an American story, to the tune. It was a huge hit for Acadian singer Patsy Gallant, from Campbellton NB. Something quintessentially Canadian here – international fame derived from going to the US. But also quintessentially New Brunswick where, at least in the Acadian parts, people switch without effort or accent between French and English. (Hear both – click video boxes below names.)
Ontario’s unofficial anthem is “A Place to Stand” aka Ontari-ari-ari-o. Again, please Lord, spare us. PEI has an official anthem, “The Island Hymn”. Having such strong musical traditions, I have no idea why PEI would choose this other than it was written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Alberta and British Columbia apparently had provincial anthems commissioned. The people of both provinces firmly rejected them. I couldn’t even find the BC one online. I did find the commissioned Alberta anthem on YouTube. It’s fine in the tourism ad it features in. But singing it at state events or around a bonfire? Not imaginable.
My Canadian Songs
I made my own list of songs that speak to me about Canada and its parts.
“Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s”. Easy choice for Newfoundland, it paints a picture of a place and way of life. (See my Mr. Otto Kelland about its author.)
“Farewell to Nova Scotia”. The unofficial anthem and a favourite of late night singsongs everywhere a Nova Scotian may be. Many beautiful songs about places are about leaving them, as is this one.
“Sudbury Saturday Night” by Stompin’ Tom Connor. Perfectly encapsulates small-town Ontario, all of small-town Canada. (See my Stompin’ Tom Revisited.)
“Qu’appelle Valley Saskatchewan”. Buffy Ste. Marie’s 1976 evocation of her home and people with a voice that sends shivers through you.
“Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia, Alberta’s unofficial anthem. As I’ve written, I think it’s the perfect Canadian song. It could be the flip side of “Farewell to Nova Scotia”, musically and demographically. It’s about going to rather than leaving. A little scared – it’s cold – but hopeful – there’s work.
The throat singing of Tanya Tagaq viscerally conjures the land and peoples of the far north. Stan Rogers’ “North West Passage” tells the flip side of her story. It is about newcomers who explore the northern lands and sea. Men determined to overcome the rigours of the land and the climate, but who fail in their attempt.
For New Brunswick, I couldn’t think of any song even though I live here. Then I remembered hearing a song on the radio by David Myles. It’s “Don’t Drive Through” (see it here). It extols the beauty of the province, but with a bit of tongue in cheek about those who see NB as only a highway to somewhere else. According to CBC, there has been discussion about adopting “St. Anne’s Reel” as a provincial anthem. No, fiddle reels are great but you have to be able to sing an anthem.
For the remaining provinces, I couldn’t come up with anything. Songs about Canada or that make a little bit of Canadian pride when you hear them? Gordon Lightfoot’s “Railroad Trilogy”. Stompin’ Tom’s “Hockey Song” and, of course, the Hockey Night in Canada theme music. I’m not a hockey fan but, yes, I’ve watched minor league games in small-town arenas and NHL games on television.
Jim’s Canadian Songs
I asked my husband what he thought of as Canadian songs, not just songs by Canadian singers. Neil Young’s “Helpless” because of “There is a town in north Ontario.” For many Americans, he says, it was the first realization that Neil Young was Canadian. And I remember thinking wow, he said Ontario!
Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with its map of Canada and “I could drink a case of you”. In “River”, she wishes she had “a river I could skate away on.” Both songs (on the Blue album) reference Canada, by name or imagery. But they are about absence, of and from Canada. Despite the evident longing, they hold Canada at a distance.
“Acadian Driftwood”, the Band’s song about the Deportation of the Acadians. A powerful history of a people thrown out of their homeland. All but one of the band members were Canadian, and they wrote just as insightfully about American history. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, for example. In both songs, geopolitics intertwine with individuals to tell the story.
From driftwood to rocks – and trees – and water
My mind back in the Maritimes, I thought of Rita McNeil’s “Workin’ Man”. This strong and angry tribute to Nova Scotia coal miners is a great example of the universality of a specific place. Wherever there are miners, you’ll find musicians who have covered her song with as much personal feeling and intensity as do she and the Men of the Deep.
All while thinking about this, a couple words and a tune kept popping into my head. Rocks and trees and trees and rocks — and water. The Arrogant Worms’ “Rocks and Trees” can hardly be counted among the reverent Canadian songs, but it’s spot on.
“What fair and equitable basis may exist for federal union of Newfoundland and Canada?” Seventy years ago, Newfoundland decided to ask Ottawa that question.
Two years later, they’d sorted it out to their satisfaction. The Terms of Union stipulated what would change and what would remain the same for Newfoundland industry, resources and people.
Spelled out in the Terms of Union was the continuation of Newfoundland’s denominational school system and the right to sell margarine. The status of the Mi’kmaq of the island and the Innu and Inuit of Labrador? Not a mention.
The Constitution Act (1867) in Section 91(24) says that the federal government has jurisdiction over “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians”. In this instance, “Indians” includes Inuit. So you’d think that the Canadian government would assume responsibility for the indigenous peoples of the new province whether or not there was explicit mention in the Terms of Union. But it didn’t happen, creating a Canadian anomaly. A province without officially recognized indigenous populations.
It isn’t that no one thought about it during negotiations. Here’s what happened, from my Putting It Back Together (1983:116).
“Subsequent to Union”
During the two weeks following September 29, 1947, the section which dealt with the Indian Act was removed, reintroduced, and then pencilled out in three different versions of the National Convention subcommittee report. No decision was made by the time of Confederation, and it was agreed to establish an Interdepartmental Committee on Newfoundland Indians and Eskimos which could “more appropriately” discuss the matter “subsequent to Union.” This committee sought an opinion “as to the precise legal extent of the federal government’s responsibility insofar as Indians and Eskimos residing in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned” from the federal Department of Justice. In the reply of April 14, 1951, the Justice Department said, “It is the responsibility of the federal government to formulate and carry out all policies that are directed at dealing with Indian or Indian problems [sic].”
[Public Archives of Canada: Claxton Papers, Min. of Justice, Min. of Mines and Resources, 1949-1951]
So why didn’t Ottawa assume its responsibility? Joseph Smallwood said in a 1982 radio interview that he intended the Indian Act to apply. But he did not want people to lose the vote and other rights of citizenship that went with that. However, the federal government reformed the Indian Act soon after, giving status Indians most of the rights of other citizens.
The Canadian government was actively pursuing assimilation of indigenous peoples in policies and practices. So perhaps it served the purposes of both nations. Newfoundland did not lose control over people and lands to Canada. And Canada did not have to add to its responsibility toward indigenous peoples. It didn’t exactly work out as planned, as the next 70 years showed.
I’ve been thinking about Ian Tyson lately. With the recent death of Leonard Cohen, the songs and the songwriters of Canada – and an era – have been heard a lot.
One song that often sneaks into my head is Four Strong Winds, the most evocative, and most Canadian of songs. Written by Ian Tyson, recorded by Ian & Sylvia in 1963, then by almost everybody else.
Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
Could be any part of Canada. West, east, south or north – strong winds blow; seas, lakes, rivers run high. But it’s Alberta in the song. And, for many people for many years, it’s been Alberta in the reality. Going out west for work. Ranch work. Before oil.
It is the reality for Mr. Tyson. He’s owned a working ranch in Alberta for decades. And he’s kept writing and singing songs. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t settle in the States. With many of them, he spent time in California and New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Then he came home.
Born in British Columbia, he worked the rodeos. Then the music, and his time with Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson. The years of his Four Strong Winds and Someday Soon and her You Were On My Mind. Many more too but, for those three songs alone, they deserve to be canonized.
Think I’ll go out to Alberta…
Four Strong Winds is about Canada. The distances that make leaving one part of the country for another a big deal. Winters that make you think twice. “And those winds sure can blow cold way out there.” In the song, it’s Alberta’s winds but it could be almost anywhere, in winter.
There still are ranches in Alberta, there is still a beef industry. There are cowboys, but fewer of them. It is all still part of the mythology of place. But oil took over the reality. The westward drift of labour continued, in search of oil work. The lure of the big bucks. Then, as the economy elsewhere faltered, it was simply the lure of a job – any job. But Stetsons and roper boots come out, at least during the Stampede when everybody’s a cowboy.
The song is about more too. It’s about the bittersweetness of leaving the familiar for somewhere new. Leaving the beloved, hoping that time and distance can be bridged. Knowing that it can’t, and maybe that’s a good thing. “Our good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on.”
So there’s the story of Canada, and the human heart – in two verses and a chorus. Thank you, Ian Tyson.
For the story of the woman he would send the fare, see MacLean’s from 2012. And at American Songwriter, Rick Moore discusses the lyrics and slight changes made by other artists.