The other night after a phone call that lasted two hours, I checked the news and, with a start, discovered that Stompin' Tom Connors had passed away.
Before his passing he penned the note you see here.
Hearing of his death while on the road across Canada hit me in a very visceral way: Stompin' Tom is one of those classic Canadian nomads. Much of his music explored this vast, enormous land of ours. Being in the midst of a cross-Canada tour myself, the news was particularly poignant.
But the best feature of Tom Connors' music was his understanding that Canada isn't just a series of geographic landmarks: It's a land of people. And he chronicled a broad diversity of that Canadian experience in song. Who else has thought to make a song about a potato farmer? Or the nickel miners of Sudbury? Falling in love on the Gaspé? A song dedicated to hockey moms?
As I meet Sierra Club members, environmentalists, and everyday Canadians across the CN rail line, I'm struck by how deeply woven the personal, the historical, and the imagined are woven together into this mosaic of people.
There's the taxicab driver in Saskatoon, an elderly white gentleman who asked me if I was Chinese. A little wearily, I answered yes, to which he exclaimed that we come from the same stock. Born in 1943, Keith's grandfather came from China in the first decade of the 1900s. Half of his cousins look Asian, he said, and half of them look white. Much of his family was part of the number of Chinese who moved to Moose Jaw and toiled in the town's underground steam tunnels making low wages doing laundry to help pay for the infamous Chinese Head Tax.
I've also spoken with many activists who have fought their entire lives to right the wrongs in society, like Karen in Saskatchewan and Rudy in Nova Scotia who became conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, escaping the draft for themselves and for their children, and becoming defenders of this country that has adopted them as it has thousands of others before them.
There's the traveller I met on Via Rail. She was on her way to Vancouver to live with her sister and brother. Their family had escaped slavery on the underground railroad generations ago and settled in Halifax. She eventually moved to Toronto, raising a teenaged son who was shot and killed last year in one of the violent gunfights that plague the city's black communities.
And there's the myriad remote, Métis, and First Nations activists I spoke with several nights ago who are fighting companies like Cameco and Areva from showing up in their schools, unannounced, to tell their children that mining uranium and dumping nuclear waste in the region is good for their communities and a good career goal, despite 20-year old former uranium miners being stricken with leukemia.
What strikes me about each of these stories is how familiar they seem: These are all stories that I've learned from a textbook, read in a newspaper, or seen on television. Draft dodgers and tree huggers, persecuted Indians and financially depressed migrants. I've known these stories, but they've always been quite distant from my own experience.
But when you see a mother publicly weep for her son as the snowy Prairie hills go by, or you hear the sadness in the voice of a grown man who describes going to a funeral every other weekend for another friend who has died of cancer... these stories cease to be historic or trivial. They stop being statistics or caricatures. Instead, they connect with you at a profoundly human level.
So as I contemplate the incredible body of work that Stompin' Tom Connors has produced, I have to ask myself: What is my contribution? Can I have the same effect on this country's policies that Connors had on it's musical psyche? Will I have a discography as varied and as conscious as Tom Connors' was? Stompin' Tom has left an incredible body of work for us to contemplate. What will be mine?