Remembering Tom Connors: MP Charlie Angus on Canada’s cultural map maker

On the legacy of the poor boy from Skinners Pond

Charlie Angus
<p>Canadian singing legend Stompin&#8217; Tom Connors sings &#8220;The Hockey Song&#8221; before the start of the NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators in Toronto, October 5, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Cassese &#8211; RTR184D1</p>

Mike Cassese/Reuters

Just before Question Period on March 7, the NDP caucus gathered in the foyer to sing Stompin’ Tom’s Bud the Spud (above). In the essay below, MP Charlie Angus considers Connors’ role as cultural map maker:

The first time I drove across Canada was like beginning a grand adventure and Stompin’ Tom Connors provided the roadmap. In the late 1980s my band the Grievous Angels undertook our first national tour (that great rite of passage for any Canadian band). We loaded up the van with Stompin’ Tom cassettes and sang along through the long hours crossing the Canadian Shield and the prairies. We waved at the landmarks made famous in those old Boot Record classics. When we finally hit the lush coastal beauty of Vancouver we headed straight for the Burrard Inlet Bridge.

After all, our national adventure wouldn’t be complete without visiting the location of Tom’s epic song “The Bridge Came Tumbling Down.”

“19 Scarlet roses / the Chaplain spread around in the waters of Burrard Inlet…where the bridge came tumbling a’ down and 19 men were drowned / in June 1958 in old Vancouver town. ”

The Grievous Angels weren’t the only band rediscovering Tom Connors at that time. Coming out of the post-punk era many Canadian musicians were looking for something authentic and raw, something that was ours. We saw Tom Connors as a genuine roots hero. He showed us that there was a nation that was waiting to be discovered, explored and celebrated in our own songs.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when, despite his recording and television success, Tom was regarded as a national embarrassment by Canada’s entertainment industry. They saw him as a rube. Top 40 radio didn’t want to hear songs about places like Wawa and Sudbury. But Tom wasn’t willing to accept the premise that Canada should exist as a cultural colony of New York, Hollywood and London.

I came from one of those towns that Tom defiantly immortalized. The first piece of Canadiana I ever heard was a scratchy 45 recorded by Tom for CKGB-AM radio in Timmins in 1966. The song “Fire in the Mine” immortalized a brutal underground mine fire that had hit the McIntyre Gold Mine the year before.

Local people loved Tom and his music but they were also discomfited by his willingness to render the gritty reality of their lives in such an iconic fashion. My grandfather worked at the McIntyre Mine and one day I asked him to tell me what it was like to be in the big fire.

He brushed off this underground calamity as just another “accident.” I pressed him with the lyrics: about how the poison “gas had been created in the McIntyre hellfire – 6,000 feet below” and how “the call went across the northland for men to fight the flame / from Sudbury to Noranda and everywhere they came.”

My Grandfather liked the song but didn’t want to talk about the lyrics. For him the mine was about hard, monotonous work while music was meant to invoke far away places and more important experiences.

Many Canadians of that generation felt similarly about their reality. But Tom was determined to show working class and rural Canada that their stories were worth celebrating and documenting. There have been many trends in folk music to “elevate” the music of common people but Tom wasn’t a folklore intellectual trying to revive an old tradition. He was just one of the thousands of dirt poor drifters who ended up in towns like Elliot Lake and Tilsonburg looking for a job and the prospect of trading some songs for beer at the local hotels.

But what set him apart was the unique ability to see in the tobacco fields and coal boats the narrative of a young nation finding itself. From this experience, Connors built an extraordinary book of song that has become a cultural map of our country.

But the greater legacy is the fact that this roadmap has laid a course for subsequent generations of Canadian artists. Canada is no longer the deferential cultural colony of yesterday. All across this country there are artists, filmmakers and songwriters who are proud to tell stories about place that once were derided as the “Sticks” and “No-where Ville.” As Canadians we are defined by the distinct landscapes and identities of this vast land and todays artists reflect this broad identity. And with this newfound confidence, Canadians are ready to tell their stories to the world.

The poor boy from Skinners Pond PEI isn’t the sole reason for this remarkable cultural transformation, but he plays a big part. Thanks Tom.

Charlie Angus is the MP for Timmins-James Bay. He is the lead singer of the Grievous Angels and has received two Juno nominations over his 30-year musical career.

"Tom Connors showed us that there was a nation that was waiting to be discovered, explored and celebrated in our own songs."