-- Political Issues: Canada --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on Canada's political and cultural life.
January/February 1985 - The political atmosphere of Canada & its relationship with the US
"Canada is almost an apolitical country. Or it's about as close as you can get to that. We have three major political parties on the federal level that are not very far apart, really. Because of the lack of breadth in that spectrum, we feel it doesn't matter who we vote for. It won't change our lives very much, maybe just some particular details. The faces change but the message remains the same."
"My audience didn't -- until relatively recently -- tend to see things in political terms. I could talk about political things but they weren't taken that way. For instance, take an old song like "Burn" . It's overtly anti-American. And it's trying to make the point Canada has very much the same client-state relationship that your average Latin American country has with the United States. Nothing quite as drastic is at stake. We're better off so there's no resistance to the relationship. We don't have a dictator; we don't have the military trip. But if we were ever to swing too far to the left it would Prague '68 revisited. That's what the song is trying to say in a very lighthearted way. Canadians relate to "Burn" really well; we love to flirt with anti-Americanism in a humorous way because it makes us feel independent. But that's about as far as most of us take it."
-- from "Singing in a Dangerous Time" by Eunice Amarantides, TheOtherSide, p.68, January/February 1985.
September-October 1994 - As a Canadian, BC says, he knows what it means to be a dominated colony
"Since we don't have a great deal of economic power, most of our industries
and resources are owned by foreigners, a lot of which are based in the United
States. So there is only a limited amount we, too, can do to control our
-- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion", by David
Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.
8 June 1995 - Contained in the 1995 Annual Report to the USC (Unitarian Service Committee)
by Bruce Cockburn, honourary board member.
Dear Friends of USC Canada;
When I was child, maybe ten years old, in the era when air raid drills were
a regular part of the public school curriculum and we were invited to take
shelter from the feared nuclear conflagration by huddling under our desks, I
first met Lotta Hitschmanova. She came to my classroom and told us about
refuge children. She wore an odd uniform, like an army nurse, and she
radiated love and concern.
When I was twenty-five, I received the first significant amount of money I'd
earned in my life - royalties from radio play of my first album. It felt
like such a godsend that it seemed appropriate to share it with those less lucky.
My wife said that her mother had a good friend who spent her time helping
those in need - and who ran an organization called the Unitarian Service
Committee. This was an agency devoted to helping victims of war and natural
disaster in many parts of the worlds....one which was committed to ensuring
that people's donations were spent on the work at hand and not to support a
swollen bureaucracy or large ad campaigns. This sounded good to me so I
became a donor. Before long I met my then mother-in-law's friend - a short
woman in a uniform reminiscent of an army nurse's, who radiated love and
concern. It was Lotta. The USC was twenty-five.
Now we're fifty. The world has learned that hiding under desks is not an
effective response to the nuclear threat. We have begun to learn that our
physical security depends, not so much on weapons or the defence against
them, as on the eradication of hunger and ignorance - of the fear which
privilege carries with it - of the rate and desperation that comes with
It became evident to the USC, that it is vital not just to offer aid to
famine victims or those displaced by war, because the same misfortune keep
recurring. We have to address the systemic causes of the problem. So began
programmes of literacy and other kinds of training designed to offer the
poor of the world the means to become self-sufficient....that is, development at
the community level.
We've made a lot of friends over the years. Friends at home and in some
places on the earth where life is very hard. It's been my privilege to play
a small part in that process. We have to keep it growing. As we feel the pinch
of collapsing economies in the developed world, think how it must be for
those whose options are already so limited. Please be generous in your
support. The need is ever more urgent.
-- from Bruce CockBurn, June 8, 1995.
[Interviewer is J. Eric Smith.]
J.Eric Smith: On a homier front, I asked Cockburn how he felt (as an English-speaking Canadian) about Quebec's separatist efforts.
BC: "Separatism has been an issue really since the English took Canada away from the French", Cockburn replied, "It's kind of an anomaly in America today that we have this large pocket of culture that is very self-aware and is not the
product of other cultures mating. English Canada looks around going 'Who are
we? Where are we? How did we get here?' while Quebec doesn't have to ask
JES: I mentioned that many U.S. political pundits have opined that if or when
Quebec does finally secede, some Provinces (particularly the economically
beleaguered Maritimes) might find it advantageous to apply for U.S. statehood.
BC: "There are almost times I wish that would happen, because we
are already so influenced by you. We get to watch your presidential elections
and know that whatever happens, it's going to have a tremendous influence on
everything we do... but we can't vote!"
JES: Since the early 1970's, Canada has stanched one small facet of U.S. influence
by having Canadian Content Regulations, i.e. requiring radio stations to
devote certain percentages of air-time to home grown music. I asked Cockburn
whether such regulations were likely to wither in a post-NAFTA era.
Cockburn didn't see radical change in this regard as
BC: "the original agreements between
the US and Canada exempted cultural issues from free trade, because we
insisted on having some control over that. The trade-off was that you guys
get to take all of our water if you want it! One could argue that a culture
is not of much value if you don't have anything to drink, but really if we
don't have some protection then we won't have a culture. I don't know... I
just somehow prefer the variety. The more we can keep something of our own
the better off everyone is, I think."
-- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn", by J. Eric Smith, 1996.
Fall 1997 - Commenting on being a 'cultural pirate'
[Interviewer is Bob Duran]
BD: Your use of the word pillage [after discussing the song Pacing The Cage] jumped out since I read in another
interview where you referred to yourself as a "cultural pirate".
BC: "It's the same reference. In the Canadian context there isn't a great
body of tradition to draw on, not if you're a typical Anglo-Canadian. If
you're French-Canadian or a more recently arrived ethnic person from a
culture that goes deep, then it's different, but the Canadian experience
is sort of skin deep on this patch of earth."
BD: It's not that much different in the U.S.
BC: "Except you have 200 years of nationhood for one thing. You have
strong traditions that are unique to the United States: the Appalachian
tradition, the blues. There are some profound things that don't have a
counterpart in Canada, except for French Canada which has roots that
have not been severed for 500 years. Canada has only been a country for
150 years. You have a few years on us and you've had a civil war and all
those big growing up experiences that we have yet to have."
-- from an "Interview with Bruce Cockburn," by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.
November/December 1999 - On being called "Canada's cultural conscience."
[Interviewer is Susan Adams Kauffman.]
SK: You've been called "Canada's cultural conscience." How does your Christian faith figure into your commitment to social justice?
BC: I actually really dislike the "Canada's cultural conscience" thing. That was
some journalist's cute phrase, and that's fine, but it unfortunately has
lived beyond its original use. It stinks, to me, because it's like, "Okay, we
have to take this guy seriously, but we're gonna write him off. We don't have
to have a conscience, because he does."
Who wants that? I want to communicate with people, and play music for
people, and have a life, and try to understand my experiences. Life sometimes
puts you in front of situations that need addressing. Since I deal in words,
I can sometimes speak to those situations or use my visibility to make other
people notice those things. I feel an obligation to do that--but it's an
obligation everybody should feel.
That's what I don't like about being singled out as "the" conscience. It's
just being human.
-- from "Fire in an Open Hand: an Interview with Bruce Cockburn," by Susan Adams Kauffman, TheOtherSide, November/December 1999.
November/December 1999 - Commenting on donating money to APEC
Q: Last November you received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award,
which honors Canadian performers for their lifetime achievement in the arts.
You stirred quite a buzz by donating your $10,000 prize money to APEC
protesters. What's the scoop?
BC: APEC--the Asia Pacific Economic Conference--is analogous to the European
economic community, or would like to be. Pacific Rim trade is what it's
about. Canada was hoping that a lot of its trade would involve Indonesia. In
1997, the APEC conference was to be held in Vancouver. In its haste to get
Suharto of Indonesia to come to this conference, the Canadian government
promised him not only that he would be protected but that he wouldn't have
to be "embarrassed" by demonstrators protesting against him. What constitutes
embarrassment is baffling after the things he's done. This guy is one inch
away from being Pol Pot. He should never have been allowed into the country,
or he should have been arrested when he set foot here.
There were lots of demonstrations against his presence at this thing, and
against the conference generally, because it's viewed, I think correctly, as
an exploitative thing that doesn't have the interests of people at heart.
The government response to the protests, even before the conference began,
involved a whole campaign of intimidation and, in a mild way, terrorization
of what were mostly a bunch of university students. Police invaded student
dormitories and ripped posters out of people's windows. Students were
rounded up and strip-searched, even though they hadn't committed or been charged
with any crimes. People became concerned about their rights to free speech.
When the conference began and the real protests started, they were met by
an overreaction with dogs and gas. It was right out of the sixties in Chicago,
and it led to a police inquiry into the appropriateness of the police
At the time I was getting the award, the government had just announced
that, contrary to normal procedure in this sort of instance, they would not pick
up the legal tab for the protesters. They claimed the protesters really didn't
need lawyers, since it was just an inquiry--but the government and police
had banks of lawyers!
Since they were giving me all this money, it just seemed like providence,
like this is how it's meant to be. A trade union organization in British
Columbia had set up a fund for the protestors' legal fees--so I contributed
my ten grand to the fund. I have to say it added a pleasing amount of spice
to the award ceremony!
from "Fire in an Open Hand: an Interview with Bruce Cockburn," by Susan Adams Kauffman, TheOtherSide, November/December 1999.
16 October 2000 - Commenting upon Free Trade Agreements
"NAFTA was mentioned before - and free trade agreements. Free for who or for
what? When Ontario got free trade agreements a whole bunch of one industry
towns died suddenly. Just went over. There was cheaper labor elsewhere. I
shouldn't talk, just play songs. Others here talked tonight. But I will
-- from the Institute for Policy Studies', 24th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights
Awards, 16 October, 2000. Transcribed by Ruth White.
16 October 2000 - Commenting on the purpose of Let the Bad Air Out
"I'm thinking about North American politics, and particularily with reference
to [Bill] Clinton and whatever."
Asked if he'd been referring to Monica Lewinsky
"It's not just that. It's the sale of Canada to multi-national interests
passed off as free trade. There's a lot of whoring going on, and it's not
just the overt."
-- from "The Good Fight, Politics, religion and music are a fine mix for Bruce Cockburn", Vancouver Sun, February 10-17, 2000. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.
15 January 2002 -
Do you believe Canada is best defined as a reaction and contrast to the United States? If yes, could you expand on this thought? If no, could you offer your own definition of Canada, without reference to the US, and how these singularly defined qualities could be used to better define the North American relationship?
Bruce Cockburn: That's a big question, I think there is a history of Canada defining itself in terms of it's relationship to the U.S. in admiration and envy many of our political choices are made in terms of what reaction they're going to get in the U.S. I think a lot of people have been trying to find some understanding of what Canada is apart from that relationship. A lot of artists have tried to render that but nobody has really come up with a definitive statement and I'm not really capable of doing it -- what it is that makes us feel like Canadians is something in our hearts that is really hard to define. It's there though.
-- from Canoe Online Chat with Bruce Cockburn, 15 January 2002. Submitted by Suzanne D. Myers.
29 March 2002 - Commenting before playing Call it Democracy
"I had the opportunity, a couple of summers ago, in July, to play at the
Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. I was tempted to play this song, Chretien
was sitting there and everything!"
-- from the 29 March 2002 show in Calgary, Alberta, Max Bell theatre, Solo performance. Submitted by Ashley Markus.
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.