Once again my timing is off. If there were ever a day to quote an American president, today—the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada—isn’t it. Surely it would be much more appropriate for me to reference an inspiring thought from one of our great Canadian luminaries. But American presidents are just so damn quotable. I will leave that statement without any qualifiers to give sufficient room for interpretation. From the current Leader of the Free World, there is ample material from which to choose, but I will instead go back a few generations to the 32nd American President, Harry S. Truman. He said: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Had President Truman been Twitter-capable, he still would have had 69 characters left on this one. That is assuming he spelled everything correctly.
There will be much flag-waving today in this country, and from my little corner of the world, it seems to me that we have lots to wave about. Over the last century and a half, Canadians have made transformative contributions in many diverse aspects of human activity. These remarkable individuals have improved the quality of life for people here at home and around the world. This is something to celebrate.
But none of us is working from a complete picture, if I’m reading President Truman correctly. Our individual understandings of world history and our own national history have some blind spots. Even as we celebrate, we are obligated to do our level best to fill in the holes.
By virtue of my particular profession, if I have any legitimate claim to quasi-authority, it’s in the area of music. As a nation, Canada has produced some pretty heavy hitters over the years. There’s not enough room here to list more than just a few, but names like Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang are hard to leave out. If you’re more of a classical music connoisseur, you will know Canadian names such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin (the conductor who has all but taken over the world) and James Ehnes (arguably the best violinist working today). This is not just a recent phenomenon: Emma Albani, the operatic soprano who reigned the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, and who gave several command performances for Queen Victoria herself, was Canadian.
But to assume that history—musical or otherwise—began in 1867 in this country is where we fall short. The rich musical heritage of our First Nations peoples stretches back much further and warrants inclusion in our national fabric. The earliest surviving music transcriptions from the Americas, songs of Henri Membertou, Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq First Nation, date back to the 1500s. Compelling voices out there today come from artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq, Robbie Robertson, Leeka Gilday, Digging Roots, Gary Farmer, Cris Derksen, Jeremy Dutcher, Tom Jackson and A Tribe Called Red, to name a few. If we choose to listen, they are offering us a chance to learn the history many of us do not know.
Today I celebrate the many things that make me proud to call Canada my home. I hope you won’t hold it against me if today I also say thank you, Mr. (Former) President.