A Rant for Rick Mercer: The Problem With Gord Downie

Hey, Rick,

Been listening in on your rants for years, as we all do.

Now I’ve got one for you, coming from a place of Cantankerous Love, on the problem with Gord Downie.

The problem isn’t Gord Downie.

He’s doing something brave, meaningful and relevant with his last remaining days among us.

That is laudable.

The problem is  Rick Mercer; if i may quote this tweet:

The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund is part of Gord Downie’s legacy. If Gord says follow I will – @downiewenjack “

Rick, you will follow, if Gord says follow? That reads awfully like you don’t care about Indigenous folks, except that Gord is saying ‘care,’ so you’re doing so for his sake. One wonders, would you care if Gord weren’t dying?

It sure looks that way, and Rick, that’s a problem. It’s a problem that is far too common in this land of ours. Indigenous people, in and of ourselves, don’t matter. And we don’t have a society that welcomes our mainstream celebrities’ calls to care about us. We sure as hell don’t have a society that gives the same airplay to Indigenous artists. There is a list long as my arm of Indigenous artists in all fields who’ve been telling stories about Residential School tragedy for decades – clearly, proudly, fiercely. And largely, we’ve been ignored.

So, sadly, we need Gord Downie’s voice, from a place near sainthood, behind the cause before you (and the public your tweet represents) will deign to notice. And you didn’t make it easy for him to stand up.

Consider other celebrities who’ve ‘Gone Native’ – by and large, they get labelled, not in a proud-of-you way, as Activists, Loose Cannons, Hippies, Lefties, and so on.

Do you know of any up-and-coming mainstream entertainers who are vocally pro-Indigenous? Do you see it happen that that stance is a boost to their career?

No, it’s seen as a risk.

The problem is, Gord had to get to the point where there is literally NOTHING left for him to fear in terms of backlash and reprisals, because he has been tagged by the great leveller. Then, he became free to speak truth to power about us, and be given a hearing.

I’m not saying he wouldn’t have otherwise, or that he never cared before.

I’m not saying his offering is less to be valued.

I’m asking, what does it say about this country that, after Indigenous people have survived, worked, struggled, told our stories, first only among ourselves, and then through the years-long, public tribunal of the TRC, you, one of our bellwethers of matters political, can send a message that for you, this matters because you love Gord, and he is facing death heroically.

Rick, it won’t be enough to “follow Gord” out of personal loyalty and sentiment.

Sentiment won’t fix our society.

And neither will Gord’s example serve, unless we examine the context in which he is acting. Literally, as his last public project, he testifies that we matter, and our history must be faced, restitution must be made, healing must happen.

Part of that healing has to mean that our leading artists don’t have to be dying to be heard on this matter. It has to mean that it doesn’t cost artists their careers to be ‘Indian Lovers,’ or ‘Friends of the Indian,’ and thus subtly excluded from the corridors of success.

It has to become possible for young, emerging and mid-career  non-indigenous artists to address this fundamental Canadian issue with honesty, integrity and artistry, and not become pigeon-holed as single issue oddities, shoved into some no-man’s land where  (White)mainstream society shuns them, while Indigenous society suspects them of trying to exploit our pain for their own glory.

As it is, we’re not there yet. And the problem is also Chanie.

I feel for him, believe me. May his soul have walked on freely.  And i feel for his family. May this project bring only good things to them.

And i feel for the thousands more who didn’t get home.

Who were starved, raped, beaten and humiliated in so many grotesque ways.

Who died at the hands of their abusers.

Who were destroyed by medical experiments.

Who left those schools so broken in spirit, heart and body that they drowned themselves in the despair of the destitute drunk, in the oblivion of booze, drugs and random violence.

Those who threw themselves in front of trains.

Those who hanged themselves.

Those who cut themselves and bled their own blood away.

Those who turned into monsters and tried to take others with them.

The problem is that Chanie might be made to stand for all of them, so that they are reduced to him, required to be as nobly innocent as him, and as dead, to matter.

And he is dead, and has no say in that choice.

And he died in the 60s.

And Gord found out about it via McLean’s Magazine.

Rick, that’s not a ‘Hidden History,’ that’s a story covered by a venerable and prominent mainstream magazine.  Rick, surely this isn’t the first time you’ve thought of following up on a story about Residential Schools? I find that hard to believe.

Mind you, Chanie’s  particular story was ignored by the literate, the powerful, and the enfranchised, until a dying singer decided he had nothing left to lose by making his last days a testimony to an unpopular cause. Unpopular, clearly, or else it wouldn’t have taken 29 years more for the last Residential School to close; and two decades more for us to be here, where Gord’s project is still – still! – needed as a wake up call so people might find it in them to care.

Yes, Chanie deserves remembrance.

But he is dead. Long dead.

Rick, do you really still need an Indian to be dead long decades before you can follow his story?

Meanwhile, the country is full of survivors, still living with the trauma, still working on healing not just themselves, but our whole reluctant, whining, nervous body politic.

Can you really not see, listen to, and follow the leadership that is steadfastly undertaken, day by grueling day, year by thankless year, by Indigenous people across this land?

Forgive me, Gord, i will not be impressed if people come up to me to tell me they are ‘so touched’ by your courage in telling this one innocent boy’s story. I will be insulted that i never mattered enough for them to talk to me.

I will be thankful that they might just make an effort to learn more, but i will suspect them of feeling they’ve done their part by buying your songs and saying, ‘yes, i heard that great thing Gord did. He’s a hero.’

Rick, Gord is a hero.

But so are the thousands of indigenous people across this land who did make it home, however broken, and made a road forward, however rocky.

We’ve had heroes all around for decades.  We’ve had survivors among us for decades.

I know, because they are my family. My friends. My community.

They do the work without any expectation of glory, because they love life, despite the base cruelty done to them in the name of greed disguised as godliness.

I’m proud to be doing my tiny part, however clumsily, mawkishly and weakly i do. I’m proud of the memory of my father, who, also aged 12, walked into the bush with his dog, away from the trials of the Church Day Schools and an unhappy home situation; but he was going to his uncles’ logging camp, and they took him in, put him to work, and mentored him in place of his own dead father, and sent him out into the world unwilling to endure being looked at as less than an equal by anyone.

Rick, did i miss your rants about how indigenous people, while alive, are as dignified, important, and relevant as anyone else? Rant it again, please.

Rick, will you follow sometime, when you hear Cindy Blackstock call on our government to comply with the Human Rights Tribunal, and stop short-changing Indigenous kids by underfunding health and education?

Maybe i missed a bunch of rants where you’ve decried the appalling fact that our government has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to deny medical care – which those fees could have paid for four times over – to indigenous children and families? If so, post those rants again, Rick. They still need to be heard.

Will you follow your colleague in journalism, Rick Harp, when he champions Shoal Lake 40, bringing their cause to light so that everyone can know that Winnipeg has water from their lands, but they themselves have no safe access? Did you rant about how easy it is to build a road? Post it again, friend, people need to hear it.

Rick, will you follow Grand Chief Stewart Philip, when he speaks truth to the visiting British monarchy, and refuses to attend any hollow ceremonies while the real issues – land, water, health, missing and murdered people, resource management, education – remain relegated to the status of ‘special interest,’ and portrayed – still! – as indigenous ‘freeloaders’ asking for free gifts from the hardworking citizens of this country?

Rick, if you ranted about the many ways Indigenous people contribute to the economic wealth of our country, via access to resources, via our labour, via innovation and scholarship and political service – rant it out again, we need to know you get it.

Rick, will you rant about how the Heiltsuk Nation exercised their title, shut down the commercial crab fishery in their Great Bear Sea territories,  to let the crab population recover?

Will you exalt their dauntless efforts as First Responders, because they actively patrol their waters, and were on the scene when the Nathan  E Stewart ran aground?

Rant about how they worked valiantly in the face of a gathering storm,not waiting for the delayed and chaotic response from non-indigenous agencies, how the Heiltsuk patrollers tried and will go on trying with all their might to save the clam beds, save the fisheries, save the whole glorious, beautiful and complex treasure that is the Great Bear Sea.

They are alive. They are heroes. They need your support.

It’s not enough to ‘follow Gord’ if it’s going to be an empty, one-time, consumerist gesture.

So, yes, give Gord our love as a nation, and our thanks and respect for his courage and dignity.

At the same time, find that same love, thanks and respect for the courage and dignity of the living indigenous people who share this land with you.

Do this for our own sake, not because you’re sad your buddy’s dying. Do it for the living.

I hope you can, i hope you do,  because Rick, in fact, you could choose to not speak up, and you’d do okay. You’d have a fine career. Nobody beyond the odd dismissible person like me might hold you to any accounting at all for avoiding us. You could look away, Rick, you have that privilege.

I hope you choose to look, for your own sake, too.

For what you have to gain by embracing our true national history, as horrific and convoluted and ambiguous it is. For what we have to gain by knowing each other, i hope you don’t look away.

We are all in this together.

I hope you understand, I write this out of love. I love your intelligence, i love your fire.

I love Gord’s work, too. He will stand as one of our great songsmiths, who spent a lifetime telling tales about, for and with us. What a gallant gent, i can see why you love him.

But please don’t let this become some bleeding heart, sentimental gesture about losing him.

We all have so much to gain if you step up and say, you care about Indigenous Canadians, here and now, living and working, angry and healing, gracious and foolish, questionable and flawed and full of potential in our own right.

You’ll have to get to know us. Talk to us. You talked to Americans. Talk to us. And while you’re at it, dare to use your public podium to talk to us in public. Why not?

I’d love to see and hear Rick Mercer Talks To Indians.(Call it that ironically).

When you do, you’ll reveal  amazing people, with amazing stories, to inspire, conspire and co-create with you a society that does justice to the best of your friend Gord, and the best of Chanie, and the best of all the ordinary, living, cantankerous but loving Indigenous people all around you.

All My Relations

Anna Marie Sewell

6 Comments Add yours

  1. sydney says:

    Reblogged this on sydney lancaster: hand & eye and commented:
    Sometimes in this life, we have the rare opportunity to meet someone whose truth-saying, perceptiveness, and wisdom makes everyone around her better. I am deeply thankful for having the opportunity to have met Anna Marie Sewell many years ago, and though we do not see each other or speak often, I have followed her writing, and her blog. Here, she addresses something that has bothered me for quite some time, but that I have been unable to express properly, with the clear-sightedness she has.

    I learn a great deal from Anna’s words, and am deeply grateful for them, and for the way in which they expose the blindness of privilege over and over and over again. Thank you. I know I need to peel those layers back and look hard at what they mean to do better, and I would suggest that all of us speaking and acting from a position of privilege would benefit from doing the same, ongoing.
    This is process. Truth is process, and is painful in the depth of the unpleasant realities it exposes. I am grateful for it, however difficult.


    1. prairiepomes says:

      Thanks, Sydney. I’m so glad this resonates. I found it surprisingly difficult to write this piece. It took me back to my late sister’s last days. She, too, died of cancer. She, too, spent her last days occupied with making difficult artistic choices, in her case, from her deathbed taking leadership responsibility in choosing who would sing her role with Asani, who were booked for a major international event. Then, she wrote her funeral song; and recorded, with the last of her voice, the three vocal lines for it. Then, she had a stroke and lost the ability to speak, let alone sing. It was horrible. She was a hero, too. But she didn’t have a publicity machine; she’d worked incredibly hard to transform herself from a ‘dirty halfbreed’ shunned in our redneck town into a world-class singer, who led Asani to Carnegie Hall, to South Africa, Hawai’i, and across Canada.
      Our communities are full of heroes.
      We need to build people, not tear them down.
      And i didn’t want to be tearing Gord down, nor even Rick Mercer.
      But dammit, we won’t get better as a society til we all stop normalising and lauding the discovery of ‘the plight of the indian’ and get on with looking at each other as equals, as co-creators, as having as much at stake.
      So glad we met all those years ago in Creative Writing class. You were already so edgy. Me, i was conducting a form of rebellion, via a steadfast commitment to wordplay and finding the humour in things. I know i annoyed our prof – he said as much in assessment meetings – but he didn’t know, and i didn’t feel it was safe (nothing particularly personal, just his status in a very class/status/culturally stratified system) to get into it with him, as to why it was so important to me to dwell in humour. It kept me sane (well, relatively). That group kept me sane. We had so many laughs. And you and Beth Goobie, as i recall it – and Sharmaine Grey – were able to bring the heavyweight stuff. I didn’t tell you then, but i got a lot out of that.
      How cool is it that we are still working as artists? Glad you’re out there, Sydney, doing your work, now in the visual realm, but still so informed, from what i’ve seen, by issues of poetics – how to discern the essential line, and frame it so it has greatest impact. Keep it up, friend!


  2. Libby st jean says:

    To me the whole Gord Downie” message is not “care” but rather “learn more”. Chanie Wenjack serves as a starting off point for a different perspective on Canadian history for some. And then a way to see all the other native issues. A new lens to see current events. As a society we need different entry points to awareness of both native history and current events.


    1. prairiepomes says:

      yes, clearly, many do need that. many others are weary, that is my point. we have been steadfastly saying ‘learn more’ and if you’re in it for the learning, friend, take a really close look at the messages that get signal boosted.


  3. Wendy McGraw says:

    Truth be told, this is one of the most powerful and honest writings I have read in a long time. I hope everyone, everywhere reads this.


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