North of the 52nd with the Tragically Hip

Novelists Joseph and Amanda Boyden travel with the band to isolated Fort Albany, Ont., for the Great Moon Gathering

North of the 52nd

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

We’re in a 40-person prop plane, high over black spruce and frozen rivers somewhere between Timmins and the coast of James Bay. A frigid night has fallen outside the small windows, and the plane buzzes with the voices of filmmakers and artists, teachers and writers. And all the members of the Tragically Hip. Every time we’re jostled by turbulence, it’s hard not to whisper-sing the Hip’s hit song, Fifty Mission Cap, about the Maple Leafs’ Bill Barilko’s death in a plane crash in the land literally below us.

Why would the entirety of “Canada’s band” risk such a thing? Why would they opt to fly, in the middle of winter, to isolated Fort Albany, Ont., to play in a high school gym? And why would the award-winning documentarians Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier do the same, toting hundreds of kilos of camera equipment? Why would Shelagh Rogers, CBC’s radio legend, take another plane from Gabriola Island off the B.C. coast—no, make that five planes and a ferry—to head to a 900-person reserve hosting the Great Moon Gathering? Nobody’s making a penny. Why?

Back before Christmas, I got a call from Edmund Metatawabin, former chief of Fort Albany and this year’s Great Moon Gathering coordinator, asking if I would be the keynote speaker. The Great Moon Gathering revolves around youth education and focuses on integrating traditional Cree learning with contemporary realities. Participants come from the reserves of Peawanuck, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, and Moose Factory, many of them teachers from down south, teachers hungry to bridge that gap between cultures.

“Of course,” I told Metatawabin. “I’d be honoured.” Then Ed slipped it in that maybe I could ask Gord Downie to come up, too, and play a couple of songs. Ah-ha . . . He’d heard about Gord’s previous visits with me to James Bay. Ed’s a wise elder, and he knows I don’t mind being a conduit. Convincing Gord, however, who was in the middle of recording a Hip album, wouldn’t be easy. Never mind the whole band. I ran the idea past Amanda. How in the world could we sell a small educational conference held in February, in a place accessible only by prop plane or a somewhat treacherous ice road, to rock legends?


Gord Downie | Robert Gillies | Edmund Metatawabin | Karen and Jassen Metatawabin | Northern Revolution | Shelagh Rogers |

We touch down on the icy Fort Albany airstrip and trundle outside. At least a dozen vehicles are pulled up to the surrounding chain-link fence, their headlights illuminating our walk to the tiny building we’ve already nicknamed the Fort Albany International Airport Terminal. There’s not enough room for all of us inside, but Edmund Metatawabin and a large welcoming committee are there to deal with the minor chaos of the unloading and disbursement of our gear. The Hip’s manager, Bernie Breen, springs to life. Impressive skills, to say the least. Before we know it, we’re loaded into vehicles and dropped off at the high school for a meal and a social, Cree style. We’re on their turf now.

Inside the beautiful school, a spacious, perfectly maintained contemporary building opened in 2001, we head to the cafeteria. It’s obvious the naysayers back in the day fighting the funding of this school—“It’ll be in ruins in a decade”—were incredibly wrong. Sitting down to plates full of homemade lasagna and gorgeous, fresh green salads, we’re told the story about how in the same week this new school opened, the old St. Ann’s residential school just up the road—that notorious hellhole of a place for generations of Cree children—somehow burned down to its dark, black core in a giant conflagration. We hear the story from more than a few locals, and when we ask how the fire started, all shrug their shoulders and smile a bit. Nobody claims to know. Funny, too, about what we don’t know yet, breaking the ice here in the cafeteria and later in the gym: the magic is beginning.

Those of us from the plane are a bit tired, waiting to put our bags someplace, but we’re called to a drum social including a circle dance, emceed by the jokester Brent Edwards. Jennifer Baichwal, Amanda, and other travellers head out to the gym floor with locals and take strangers’ hands. Band members smile for photos with other residents and visitors; Hip guitarist Rob Baker is a popular draw, with his long hair and nearly floor-length brass-button Russian coat.We meet a group of teens comprising one of the opening bands for the following night’s show. We meet people who have moved far away from Fort Albany but who’ve returned expressly to see the Tragically Hip. And we meet Joan Metatawabin, Ed’s patient wife. While there’s one lovely lodge in town, usually reserved for visiting contractors, the Hip have first dibs, as they should, and it’s Joan’s job to make sleeping arrangements and scatter the rest of us visitors and conference attendees throughout homes in the community.


The next day, at the Northern Store, we learn that a head of lettuce costs more than $8 in Fort Albany. The small bag of pistachios we buy costs $10. How had our hosts managed to provide enormous serving dishes of fresh salad strewn with bright vegetables? Who spent hour upon hour making what had to be 20 kg of lasagna? After asking around, we find out that all the groceries had to be flown in specially and that a veritable army of volunteers was responsible for everything from setting up hundreds of chairs in the gym to breaking down the stage afterwards.

The volunteering doesn’t stop in the gym. George Gillies spends all day and night driving around in a big white van, transporting band members and anybody else who needs a lift. Stan Kapashesit has come up from Moose Factory to coordinate with Billy, the Hip’s head tech, having worked for weeks ahead of time to find a way to somehow ship the equipment necessary to actually put on a show. (By train and then ice road is the answer.) Stan felt it necessary, before the band’s arrival, to move each and every heavy piece of equipment into his home in Moose Factory for safekeeping from the elements. (He then hauled the cargo more than 100 km up the ice road to Fort Albany.)

But at least equipment is inanimate, if hulking, in a living room. Who are these other generous people who open up their homes and hearts to strangers attending the conference, to Spelling Bee of Canada founder Julie Spence, for example, and to the blond singer Shannon Moan with the gorgeous voice from Alberta? Think about it for a second. Would you invite strangers into your home tomorrow to bathe and eat and sleep in, say, your daughter’s bed while she bunked on the La-Z-Boy?

Maybe the answer to the question of why anybody would make the difficult trip to Fort Albany is becoming a little clearer. How did we manage to convince Gord Downie? And what about Shelagh Rogers’s insane journey, travelling on her own dime? Why would Mark Mattson of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper bring a sleeping bag and say the sofa’s fine for two nights? He’s no spring chicken.

The sell, actually, proved amazingly simple. In the glaring light of the media attention focused on the appalling conditions at Attawapiskat, we decided that we needed to initiate a guerrilla act of love for a people who are so thoroughly underrepresented but now, somehow, overexposed for only their shortcomings. A guerrilla act of love to show the rest of the country what strength and artistry, grace and humour the Cree possess. The seed germinated.

Why this place? Why now? Why an education conference? Because Ontario’s Drummond report says so, for starters. Because, in a 700-page body of work calling for massive fiscal cuts, it suggests the only fiscal spending should be directed toward the education of First Nations children on reserve.

Those of us at the conference, and at the concert, believe in the reclamation of culture for the Cree. We believe in the equalizing of funding for schoolchildren across our country. We believe that the gross underfunding of every child on reserve in Canada must be rectified, and that they must receive the same amount as non-native children. We also believe in the strength of a people mistreated by our country, and we believe there’s an enormous need to educate us. Most Canadians will never set foot on a reserve, much less one in western James Bay. Many think First Nations people here can’t manage their money. But of course any place with $8 heads of lettuce would be easy to navigate with a strict weekly grocery budget, right?

Most Canadians feel the financial pinch of heating bills in winter. It’s less likely, though, that most Canadians know that the energy generated by dams nearby in Cree territory is sold south for far cheaper rates than to those living on the very lands that produce it. Makes sense, right?

Our second day begins with an invitation to breakfast at a local joint, followed by an ice fishing trip outside of town. Fresh—a.k.a. liquid gold—coffee, fried eggs, hash browns, you name it. The owners, Karren and Jassen Metatawabin, refuse to let us pay. Hmm. The generosity of spirit is becoming palpable. A rumour circulates that a special sweat lodge will be set up for the band the next day, and everyone’s enthusiastic.

A gang of us heads off for a 40-minute drive south on the ice road through the northern muskeg. Our driver points to osprey nests and the odd fox, standing out golden against the white of snow, staring. A few transports, delivering supplies to DeBeers’ Victor Mine a couple of hours north, barrel past. Word has it that DeBeers is drilling some of the richest diamond pipes ever found in this country.

I tell the group of us squeezed into the truck how we approached a number of corporations to see if they’d help fund our guerrilla act. It isn’t cheap, what we’ve attempted to put together. Both Ontario Power Generation and Detour Gold came through, happy to contribute cheques. Strangely, despite repeated requests on our part, DeBeers, which works directly with the Cree on traditional land, decided, we guess, that an event meant to shine some positive light on what has been spun as a hopeless situation wasn’t worthwhile. Hey, DeBeers, it’s never too late!

We slow at a creek that cuts across the ice road, then pull right onto the frozen creek for a fun off-road jaunt to augured-out fishing holes. A handful of people from the community teach the members of the band how to jig for speckled trout while Gavin Brown, the Hip’s current brilliant producer, zips by on a snowmobile, looking like Rasputin with his long black beard whipping in the wind. We watch as he switches places with his passenger, Gord Sinclair, the Hip’s bassist, and the two of them drive onto the ice of James Bay, soon disappearing into the white distance. We hope they can find their way back. We have to get home soon and get ready for the show.

A few hours before the concert, I give my keynote address to a packed gym that includes the legendary Cree hunting and fishing guide William Tozer and his family, along with my brother Raymond and two of his sons who’ve snowmobiled all the way from Ahmic Lake to be here. I quote some of the more ridiculous remarks made about the Cree from the opinion sections of our national papers these last months and contrast them with some facts about the people and the land. The crowd gets what I’m after. This is a rally for the people, after all. I end with my definition of who I think the Cree really are and step aside for the dozen volunteers to ready the gym for the big show.

Shelagh Rogers, having just arrived hours earlier, takes on the daunting task of co-emceeing with mischievous Brent last minute, introducing opening acts with wit and sincerity. At one point she’s handed a note she reads with a laugh. A dog, a puppy, is loose, wandering the halls of the school. Would somebody please retrieve the animal? Nick de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal duck and weave around the gym, filming musicians and audience members alike. Gord Downie joins one of five opening acts, Northern Revolution, a group comprised of talented teens, for a rendition of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door before a short break, and then, finally, the members of what might arguably be called Canada’s quintessential rock band hit the stage.

In the high school gym, in front of 450 people, including deputy grand chief Mike Metatawabin of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Stan Louttit, chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, the Tragically Hip deliver what surely has to be one of their best shows ever produced. Russ Wilson works some kind of miracle on sound while Billy the guitar tech manages to do what usually requires four assistants. Those in the gym—it’s strangely conducive, acoustically—are treated to brand new songs, songs that haven’t even yet been recorded for their upcoming new album. The event speeds by in a blur. Paul Langlois’s backup voice is pitch-perfect, his guitar work clean and nuanced, and Johnny Faye’s just slammin’ on the drums, crisp and sharp and loud. Gord and Rob and Gord—well, they’re honestly at their very finest, and the audience knows it. The audience, too, knows the lyrics of every recorded song the Hip play. When the recognizable deep notes of New Orleans is Sinking sound out, the crowd—having tried ever so hard to be respectful and proper and sit in their assigned seats—can’t contain their joy, and rise to their feet, singing along at full volume. The sight is truly magical, and it’s ridiculously easy to see that the band is getting back at least as much as it’s giving. The audience cheers and applauds afterwards, and volunteer Phoebe Sutherland sends out a goose call so real-sounding that the band thanks her for it. It’s something the Hip have never been given in appreciation before.

The next morning, we gather at the lodge where the band is staying to await transportation to the sweat. It’s obvious how close the members are, like brothers after nearly 30 years of rehearsing and recording and touring and creating and fighting and making up. Everyone, manager, techs, and producer included, sits in a loose circle, towels waiting in a pile, content in the work they did, awed by the show of love from the community and the experience at large. Still, they’re a little nervous now about the sweat. “Does it hurt?” somebody asks. “Can we leave if we need to?”

We wait, and then wait some more. Finally, Gavin suggests we could just dim the lights, crank up the heat high as it goes, and hold hands. Of course we can’t stop laughing.

The sweat doesn’t manage to happen. A lack of communication. But that’s okay. We know, like Gord told the audience last night, that we’ll be back.

Most Canadians remember the hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Most Canadians remember the images of African-Americans stuck in the convention centre playing out on TV, these suffering, confused people pleading for help, and no doubt most Canadians watched from a distance thinking that such a thing could never happen in our country, right? That Canadians wouldn’t treat their own in such a deplorable manner. Canadians believe in equality for all, every variety of minority in our mosaic democracy, and know how to enact that equality, right?

Do you know what it feels like to ask for help?

And do you know what it feels like to give? To simply give?

We Canadians have always been good at ignoring communities like Attawapiskat until desperation pushes them into the headlines. We’ve so often failed First Nations. And First Nations communities are not without flaws. They acknowledge this. But doesn’t that apply to all of us? We as a nation can only move forward together. We can be better, so much better, together.

The woman who rescues that puppy wandering the halls of the school during the concert is booked on the same charter back south, and she’s decided she’ll save the homeless furball. But, strangely enough, considering all the other cargo that’s been allowed over the years, she’s not given permission to carry the puppy in a secure bag on board the plane. She’s distraught. And so another guerrilla act of love needs to be enacted.

Amanda and I are some of the last to board, and the view from the front of the plane is one we’ll never forget. Everyone looks bigger somehow, and it’s not just because of all the thick parkas. The band, clustered in the back seats, has been given beaver hats and mitts, which they wear with pride, and everyone, down to the last passenger, smiles, warm and full with a rich experience. People laugh and chat, and we sit to whispers of how members of a certain musical group that will go unnamed managed a shell game with some carry-on luggage back in the Fort Albany International Airport Terminal.

And then the sound goes out into the cabin: a squeak from a puppy somewhere in the back. We all look to the flight attendant to see if she’s heard it. Before the puppy can make any more noise, the whole cabin erupts in a chorus of throat-clearing, and those who can sing, opt for high notes.

The plane takes off without a hitch.

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