Songs of Justice
Songs of Justice, a full-length album, started off as a single song back in 2019. Let Justice Roll was written as a response to the colonialist apologetic that continues to not only defend the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald but venerate him. I had recently watched an archived CBC Sunday Panel from 2017, during which host Susan Ormiston invited two historians and an Indigenous rights activist, to discuss the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald. Ormiston asked questions of the panel, “Do you agree with removing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from schools? From buildings? Removing statues?” 1
When asked if they agreed with the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from schools, two of the panelists outlined valid reasons for why Canadians, if they are committed to truth and reconciliation, should no longer uncritically celebrate Canada’s first prime minister. One historian, however, said, “I strongly disagree.” He went on to say, “I would use the phrase ‘time-out,’ let’s take a ‘time-out,’ that’s my advice – ‘timeout.’” Hearing a history professor pleading for more time struck me as ironic and, in the context, disturbing. There was a phrase that took hold in my mind, “Hear the case of history plead for more time.” The phrase stuck with me, eventually becoming the opening line of the song. The title of the song was inspired by words from the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness flow like a never-ending stream.”
In the debate over the public display of monuments and buildings that commemorate Macdonald’s achievements, it is not uncommon to hear a litany of accolades marshalled to supersede his record of injustices against Indigenous peoples. As of January, 2021 the website In Defense of Sir John A Macdonald and His Legacy boasted over 200 signatures of scholars, politicians, historians, educators, business leaders, and public figures in solidarity to defend his memory. They write,
“Macdonald’s undoubted errors must be weighed, however, against an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.”2
Even if Macdonald was the most influential political figure in Canadian history, is it not a serious error in judgment to sanitize Macdonald’s atrocities as mere “errors” and uphold him for his friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada? Friendship by what possible definition? He referred to Indigenous peoples as “savages” and initiated strategies to take children away from their families, eradicating Indigenous teachings and traditions. Is he not also the architect of the genocidal system of residential schools, as historians Robert Alexander Innes and Sean Carleton have pointed out? 3 Do the signatories consider residential schools acts of kindness motivated by friendship? And the Macdonald defenders go on to celebrate his land gains, “Sir John acquired territory that made Canada the second largest country in the world.” 4 For the signatories, does the end justify the means? Do they support his starvation policies and ordering the Canadian army to lead unprovoked attacks against Indigenous peoples to acquire territories? And now there is concern and worry that Macdonald is a victim of “cancel culture.”5 An astonishing apologetic given that he invented one of its most evil manifestations.
Long after Macdonald, Indigenous peoples are still discriminated against, mistreated and marginalized. Hercules, one of the songs in this collection, recounts the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene from Little Duck Lake to Churchill. In 1956 federal and provincial governments wrongly charged the Sayisi Dene with overhunting Caribou in their home territory of Duck Lake. Without their consultation or consent the entire Dene population was airlifted and taken from their forested hunting grounds to the barren shores of the Hudson Bay. There they lived in dire poverty without heat, electricity, or running water. 6 The Winnipeg Free Press reported that “Within a decade or so, 130 of the original 300 were dead. A semi-nomadic people, who depended on the caribou as much as Plains peoples did on buffalo, was stripped of their way of life inside a single generation.”7 Meanwhile Fort Churchill, a settler community mere minutes down the road, enjoyed a full range of amenities. The Rocket Range boasted state of the art facilities and infrastructure built by the Canadian Army and consigned from 1959-1970 by the United States Air Force for air defence missile testing. The cost of a single Nike-Hercules rocket would have been equal to the cost of food for the 300 dislocated Dene for several months.8
But racism and discrimination against Indigenous people carries through to the present government. There for the Money recounts the mistreatment of an activist who confronted Justin Trudeau at a Laurier Club fundraising dinner hosted at the Omni King Edward Hotel, March 27, 2019. The activist interrupted Trudeau to advocate for the people of Grassy Narrows, victims of mercury poisoning. The activist was forcibly removed by Trudeau’s security while he mocked her, thanking her for making a donation to the Liberal Party of Canada.9 Trudeau’s admiring audience laughed along with him, showering him with rousing applause. Later Trudeau apologized for his lack of respect and promised to refund her entrance fee. For the chief of Grassy Narrows, the apology was hollow while his people were still suffering. At the time of writing 44% of water systems affecting First Nations communities do not have clean drinking water, with 54 new long-term drinking water advisories occurring in the last five years.10
Historically, many traditions of Inuit, First Nations, and Métis peoples were systematically denounced and demonized. Voice of Tradition serves as a call to affirm the goodness of traditional knowledge and ceremonies and as a vow to end the silencing of traditional ways of knowing and being. The lyrics were influenced by the University of Calgary Indigenization Strategy, the Walk for Truth and Reconciliation, the Think Indigenous International Education Conference, and the General Assembly of the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Five of the songs draw attention to the historical and current significance, both spiritual and political, of Louis Riel and the Métis people.
Lead My People is adapted from Louis Riel’s poetry.11 The lyrics situate Riel as a leader in the making; his sense of calling gained confidence over the course of his life. Riel came to embrace the Métis as “my people.” “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back,” is one of the most popular quotes attributed to him.
Call this Land celebrates the naming of Manitoba recalling the voice of Manitou heard in the waves crashing at the narrows of the Great Spirit. The song references Riel: “I had requested the name be Manitoba as it speaks of the voice of the great Manitou or the Great Spirit, which is already written in all hearts, and this suggestion was agreed upon in Ottawa.” 12
In the Blood is based on the poem Marie-Joseph’s Recitation of Names introduced with the statement by Riel, “Indian blood throbs in me.” 13 The stanzas reflect Riel’s genealogy, affirming the blood and love that flows in his veins, traced back to his Chipewyan Great Grandmother Marie Joseph leBlanc.
I Cannot Escape is an attempt to condense select thoughts and statements by Louis Riel around the time of his arrest and sentencing. He thinks back to a vision he received at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Washington where he was overwhelmed with emotion, intense joy and then intense sadness, by the spirit of God. He was left with the conviction of his vision and release from the fear of his enemies. This mystical experience later equips him to surrender and face trial.14 The polemic in the song is Riel vs. Macdonald.
Riel’s Song is inspired by The Dress and The Gardener’s Breath written by Riel from the Regina jail.15 As Riel faced execution, his expression, poetic and prophetic, is calm in the face of death. The chorus “Huron Carol” recalls the honour to his ancestors, “And I praise my ancestors Who in the sweetest tone Taught me the Huron Carol.”16
Walk With Me is based on the pilgrimage to Lac Ste Anne. The lake is considered sacred by both First Nations and Métis peoples. The pilgrimage week demonstrates a cooperative spirit toward spirituality between Indigenous and Roman Catholic traditions. The Indigenous Christ hanging in the main shrine is compelling. When I attended the pilgrimage in 2019 I distanced myself as an observer. I viewed the healing that pilgrims experience there from an academic perspective, allowing only that I believe that you believe what you believe. That changed for me when a pilgrim, a stranger to me, asked me if I could make a phone call on his behalf. I didn’t ask him why, but he offered an explanation. He said he wasn’t allowed to use a phone right now or own any form of technology because he was working through an addiction episode in his life and he wanted to call his mom. That was not an academic inquiry for me, but a very personal moment. When I offered him my phone he said, “Actually can you dial the number and get my mom on the phone and tell her it’s me?” He was vulnerable, there for healing and hope. I saw the real journey and came to realize the impact of the Pilgrimage through his eyes.
I don’t know if these songs will nurture respect, but I hope they will contribute toward understanding, truth, and reconciliation by informing select historical relations between Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
1 John Ivison, “Another Liberal Broken Promise,” National Post, March 11, 2021.
2 In Defense of Sir John A Macdonald and His Legacy. Macdonald-Laurier Institute. January 12, 2021. https://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/defence-sir-john-macdonald-legacy/
3 See Robert Alexander Innes, “John A. Macdonald should not be forgotten, not celebrated,” The Conversation¸
13 August 2018:
https://theconversation.com/john-a-macdonald-should-not-be-forgotten-nor-celebrated-101503; Sean Carleton,
“John A. Macdonald was the real architect of residential schools,” Toronto Star, July 9, 2017.
4 In Defense of Sir John A Macdonald and His Legacy.
5 Barnes writes, “Our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, tops the charts in Canada for falling victim to this trend [cancel culture].”See Sally Barnes, “The Problem with Cancel Culture,” Huntsville Doppler, October 28, 2020.
6 Jim Bell, “Ottawa finally apologizes to Nunavut’s Dene neighbours for forced relocation,” Nunatsiaq News, August 19, 2016, https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/65674ottawa_finally_apologizes_to_nunavuts_dene_neighbours_for_forced_reloc/
7 Alexander Paul. “Addressing the fatal ordeal of the Dene,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 13, 2016. https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/relocation-and-reconciliation-390041061.html
8 The Nike-Hercules missile cost $55,200 USD in the mid-1950s. See John Knute Smoley, “Seizing victory from the jaws of deterrence: Preservation and public memory of America’s Nike air defense missile system” (PhD diss., University of California, 2008), 53, ProQuest (3342049).
9 Pam Palmater, “Thank you for your donation,” Maclean’s, March 29, 2019. https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/thank-you-for-your-donation/
10 Jesse Snyder, “Trudeau’s apology rings hollow,” National Post, March 30, 2019.
11 Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems, trans. Gregory Scofield. (Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions in collaboration with Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2011), 25-26; 36-38; 61-62; 65-68; 82-83; 86-87. The lyrics include concepts and partial phrases from poems The Infinity of Maybe, The Orange Poems: The Expatriate, Dear Sir to You I Say (The Petition), The Sewing Circle, The Dress, and The Request.
12 David Doyle, Louis Riel: Let Justice Be Done. (Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2017), 100.
13 Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems, 13.
14 Doyle, 135-136.
15 Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems, 80-81; 82-83.
16 Louis Riel: The Heretic Poems, 13.