the canada issue

As Canada nears 150, what’s on the horizon for Canadian music?

By Robin Elliott, Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music

Robin Elliott

Those of us who are of a certain age remember the air of excitement surrounding the Centennial celebrations. The musical activities were staggering: a parade of outstanding performances at Expo 67 in Montreal, a host of commissioned works from Canadian composers (including the opera Louis Riel by Harry Somers, with words by Mavor Moore), festivals, recordings, new concert halls, and even a few catchy theme songs for the occasion, such as Bobby Gimby’s “Ca-na-da” and Dolores Claman’s “A Place to Stand” (and a place to grow … Ontari-ari-ario!). As we prepare to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017, it is an opportune moment to consider where Canadian music is going.

In the plus ça change category, the opera Louis Riel will be remounted by the Canadian Opera Company in 2017 as its contribution to the Sesquicentennial celebrations. The composer Murray Schafer once remarked that the historical figure of Louis Riel “personifies the dissonance at the root of the Canadian temperament.” The restaging of this opera about him will provide occasion to consider how the themes that this work addresses – the tensions between east and west, centre and margins, French and English, church and state, Indigenous and settler – continue to resonate with Canadians in the 21st century.

In many respects, the musical world has changed beyond recognition since 1967. Technology has reshaped all aspects of music making in previously unforeseen ways. Each listener now has easy access online to the music of all times and places; a musician can be totally unknown one year, and internationally celebrated the next, thanks to this hyper-mediated environment.

As I write these words, six of the top 10 songs on the Billboard “Hot 100” are by Canadians – three are by Justin Bieber, with one each by Drake, Shawn Mendes, and Alessia Cara. Bieber, Mendes, and Cara came to attention by posting self-made music videos online, which has inspired countless young Canadians (including my daughters) to follow their example. The next big name in Canadian music is no doubt uploading his or her first video to YouTube as you read these words.

But perhaps the most promising development for the future of Canadian music is the rise to prominence of a number of outstanding Indigenous musicians, who are transforming the way we think of contemporary indigeneity, and indeed the way we think of Canada.

The appearance of these artists is timely, given the recent release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the attempt to bring about a renewed social contract that acknowledges past injustices and searches for a healing path for the way forward. Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq and the Ottawa-based First Nations DJ crew A Tribe Called Red bring a spirit of adventure and experimentation to Canadian music that is being embraced by diverse audiences here and abroad. They may not make the Billboard “Hot 100,” but their music is an essential part of the Canadian soundscape. May future Canadian musicians of all stripes be inspired by their example.