27 June 2019 - This famous songwriter says the northern Ontario landscape taught him to love nature and a have a greater appreciation for First Nations culture. And he'll be back in northern Ontario in July. We chat with legendary musician and activist Bruce Cockburn. [Link no longer active.]
Aired: June 25, 2019
Update: 14 July 2020 - Thankful for transcription by John Peregrim as this audio interview is no longer active.
BRUCE COCKBURN INTERVIEW - June 25, 2019 - Up North on CBC Radio
[Note: I believe the announcer's name is Waubgeshig Rice after researching the "Up North" show, but can't confirm this as the link to the audio no longer is active - John Peregrim ]
Waubgeshig Rice: Canadian musician and activist, Bruce Cockburn, has been writing songs about conflicts in the lives of Canada's indigenous people for decades. And recently he was on CBC Radio's "Day Six" program, talking with host Brent Bambry about the ongoing issues. Let's take a listen. [excerpt from that interview begins]
[song "Indian Wars" fades in
You thought it was over
But it's just like before
Will there never be an end
To the Indian wars? and continues in background]
Brent Bambry: I'm wondering about that final question. Is it still an open question for you, or do you see reason to hope?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, there's always reason to hope, but I . . . I think it's an ongoing thing. I think that all the stuff around pipelines, and the misuse of, in a certain way theft, of native land, or at least of their control over their land, that continues. I hasn't diminished. Yeah, that war, those wars continue. [ excerpt ends ]
WR: That's just a sample of the interview that aired last week on CBC Radio's "Day Six" program. With Cockburn set to play in North Bay next month, we reached out to chat with him as well. Good afternoon and welcome to "Up North."
BC: Glad to be with you. Thanks.
WR: In recent years in northern Ontario, the spotlight is turning more and more to some long neglected problems, specifically dealing with the First Nations. Are you seeing a change in focus as well?
BC: What I see mostly is, the view from San Francisco where I'm living, but the ... I'm seeing main stream media pay more attention to issues involving aboriginal people around North America in general. It's just in the news more. I mean, twenty years ago it never came up at all, or at least rarely, and with kind of very limited focus, and partly because of . . . well, I'm not quite sure what all the reasons are. But part of it has to do with protesting against pipelines and that sort of thing, that have sort of put land issues for instance, on the front burner for media. But it would be nice to hope, at least, that the broader community of Canadians is just waking up.
BC: You know, and let's hope for that [laughs].
WR: Yeah! You've talked about Canadian culture as having a low grade fever when it comes to talking about our nation's past treatment of indigenous people. What do you think is missing in our current remedies around truth and reconciliation?
BC: That's a big question. Well, one of the obvious things that's missing is a commitment from the political world to do anything about anything. You know, that doesn't involve money, or the acquisition of money for their friends. I mean, I think much more could be done if there was the political will to get it done.
BC: And political will, of course, is at least partly driven by popular feeling, and so I guess you could extrapolate from that that maybe there's an element of that popular feeling that needs to be enhanced and promoted. You know, you can always find, you know, a redneck in the woodpile that'll tell you "everything's been fine and it's all BS" you know, or whatever, but we know that's not the case, and most people, I think most Canadians are generally sympathetic if they can be made to . . . or brought around, I should say, because it's not a question of making anyone do anything, but brought around to seeing the appropriateness of addressing the historical situation and what it's become.
WR: Mmm hmm.
BC: So you know I think that's our, all of our challenge, I suppose, to get that to work.
WR: Speaking of history, you've witnessed a lot over the years, as you've traveled across our region including mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. You wrote the song "Gavin's Woodpile" decades ago in response, and today Grassy Narrows makes national headlines due to some of the ongoing protests and advocacy work. How do you feel about your role in raising awareness about the plight of Grassy Narrows?
BC: I put that in a song because I was moved by the situation and, you know, the song sort of covers other stuff too, but it . . . I really wanted to express how I felt about what I had . . . I mean, Ididn't encounter it first hand, but about what I had read and had come to understand about what was going on in Grassy Narrows. And that understanding came at a time when I was waking up myself to the history of our relations between white and native Canadians. I mean I think that we all learned the bare bones of the history, you know, [we learned about [4:46 something "Royale"?], we learned about historical figures who had kind of a dramatic role to play, but didn't really learn much else in school. And when I started traveling in western Canada and meeting my peers who happened to be aboriginal, and got some understanding of how they . . . of what kind of life they'd had, in contrast to the kind of life I'd had, I was shocked and very much moved. And so when I learned about the Grassy Narrows thing, it was in that context, of kind of discovery of like "Holy Jeez, what have we been missing all this time? What have we not noticed? What have we not been paying attention to?" And the gross injustice of it all, you know, I found stimulating [laughs] . . .
BC: . . . I guess you could say. You know, it still affects me. That same sense of, I mean I have no idea what it's like to grow up as a First Nations person." But I do know what a lot of First Nations people say about that. And the truth of what I've heard is very evident. So, you know, I can empathize to that degree.
WR: Is raising awareness something that you still do at your live shows, and your advocacy work?
BC: Umm, you know I've never really thought of myself as doing "advocacy work." I just, I write songs and I play songs, and then sometimes people ask me about the songs, so we get to have a conversation like this where issues come up and can be aired, in a more literal way than they turn up in songs. And that I'm glad of those opportunities. But, sure, I mean . . . The song that most often turns up in my shows currently is a song called "Stolen Land," which was written in the late '80s for the Haida people. All the protests around Lyell Island at that time, and they were trying to raise money for bail [laughs] . . .
BC: Mostly for all these elders who were getting thrown in jail . . .
BC: And so we did a benefit for them in Vancouver and in preparation for that, I realized that I didn't really have a song that was appropriate to that, that specific kind of an occasions, so my friend Hugh Marsh and I wrote "Stolen Land," and it's kind of been in the repertoire ever since. The imagery's a bit more coastal, but it's all over. I mean, the same with "Indian Wars," like you . . .another song from the '90s, like you run into the same issues all over the continent, really, and in fact all over the entire western hemisphere, it's pretty similar.
WR: Mmm hmm
BC: There's better and worse versions of it, but really the issues are the same, or the principles are the same. And so, you know, if you talk about the situation in the Dakotas or you talk about the situation in The Yukon, or whatever, it's sort of . . . or northern B.C. I mean it's . . . people understand from one to the other what we're talking about, right? Because it is always about the same stuff, it's always about the exploitation of, the imbalance of power between aboriginal communities and the, you know, the body politic.
WR: Is that what you'd like your fans and people listening to this conversation to consider as you play live, and as, you know, we have these discussions ongoing?
BC: Well, sure! Of course I'd like to make them consider that [laughs] I can't make them think anything in particular. But, I mean, part of the point of writing songs about something . . . Okay, I write songs because I have it in me to do that, and I want to . . . I just want to write songs, and make music, and whatever. But if you're going to bother putting words to music, they should say something, and so that was the starting point. And then, you know, okay, the things that I run across in life become part of the content of the songs. And . . . But the point of getting up and singing in front of people, that once those words are there is, of course, you want people to hear them, and you want people to be touched by them, and I've been blessed enough to have that often be what happens. So, you know, I don't take it for granted, but it's always worth getting up and . . . spouting [laughs] your piece, you know? and, and so ... and it, and you pretty much always know that somebody somewhere in the room in gonna be touched by what you have to say. And that's true for most artists, maybe all artists, there's always somebody out there that gets it. Whether that's a majority, is another question, and so when, you know, when we're dealing with this kind of issue of social justice and righting historical wrongs, that's a very big picture and it can't be overstated.
WR: Just lastly, Bruce, you'll be back in our region next month for a show in North Bay. How do you feel about returning to Northern Ontario?
BC: I'm very much looking forward to it, actually. I've . . . I wish I could hang out more [laughs]. The only regret I have is these visits are never long enough, because that landscape is one that's . . . I mean, that's the landscape that taught me to love nature. And all those rocks, and lakes, and trees. I would love to be able to hang out more in that setting. But, but it'll be a short visit. But I think it'll be fun for everybody, so I'm quite looking forward to it.
WR: And I'm sure you'll be back down the line too. Bruce, thank you very much for joining us today.
BC: Thanks a lot.
WR: That was Canadian musician and activist Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn currently resides in San Francisco, and he'll be playing at the Capitol Center in North Bay on July 12th.