Canadian Artists Weigh In on What Canada Means to Them

Featuring Nardwuar the Human Serviette, Broken Social Scene, Cadence Weapon, Carly Rae Jepsen and more

Painting: Johnny Crap

BY Allie GregoryPublished Jul 1, 2020

While colonial powers come under scrutiny amid global uprisings against systemic oppression, Canadians have been forced to reckon with our dark past and continuing issues with deeply-rooted inequality as a nation.

Canada Day — in all its patriotism — can serve as a reminder that we still have so much work to do, especially when it comes to reconciliation, our government's relationship to this land's First Nations people, our treatment of racialized individuals in the judicial system, and so much more. 

As we continue to look at the real ways our country can do better by its people, we also want to remember the great and memorable things the land has to offer. From its rich wildlife to our incredible music and film industries to something as simple as poutine, there are many things Canada has to offer that can unite us. 

For years, we've been asking Canadian artists about what reminds them of home — be it their favourite parts, or the way our country can improve — for our Exclaim! Questionnaire interview series. In celebration of this year's Canada Day, we've compiled some of the best answers from the nation's greatest musicians and entertainment figures.

Here's what Canada means to some pretty special Canadians:

​Steven Page:

Right now I think of how difficult things are. The kitsch that Barenaked Ladies spent in the early '90s celebrating in an ironic way seems to be less fun when you start to realize that it's only one type of Canadian identity. It's only really white Canadian kitsch, and it doesn't include all of the voices of the other Canadians out there. We're having to look back at how we view our country. We spend a lot of time feeling superior to our Southern neighbours, and I think that's dangerous, because there are similar things happening at home. So I think we need to have some humility and listen to each other. That's the new Canada.

Gordon Lightfoot:

I love Canada. I've travelled all over the North in various canoe expeditions. Fortunately, I was fell in with a group of people about 30 years ago who were into canoe trips. I got into it and over a period of about 15 years, I did ten trips. I've done a lot of the major rivers in Northern Canada — the Coppermine, the Back River, the Nahanni, the Churchill. I feel very fortunate about being born in Canada. Never really wanted to leave. The opportunity was presented to me on two or three different occasions. Should I move down there? I said, no, it's not necessary. My management, of course, was based in New York originally. So I had an advantage there, because they were able to arrange my work and my recording deals down there. It was my songwriting that got me in the door.

Annie Murphy:

I think of home and lakes and Shania Twain and privilege.

Lindi Ortega:

Poutine. When I was living in the States, I craved it so much because I am such a huge cheese addict, especially cheese curds. So, I love poutine. I love maple syrup, too. I think of maple syrup… poutine… moose. Can I add the Rocky Mountains? I love the Rocky Mountains.

Matt Mays:

I think of freedom. I've travelled the world and I've been very blessed and very lucky to do that and I get home and I feel even more blessed that I get to call this my home country. It's such a free nation, even geographically it feels very freeing here, socially it's designed as one of the freest countries in the world and I like that. It's something that's impossible not to be proud of and on top of that to play for and represent, I feel very lucky.


Simon: I think of Mom and Dad and snow and fresh air and that if you break your arm you don't have to take out a loan.

Milo: Love, beauty, nature and maple syrup. Not necessarily in that order.

Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner:

I feel lucky to be Canadian, but at the same time, it's stolen land. We have a long history of genocide and theft and blood. A lot of Canada's existence owes to straight resource extraction. In a lot of ways we've evolved, but if you look at something like just how corrupt the entire SNC-Lavalin case is, or how hollowed out and craven most of our media is — including whatever passes for centre-left media — it's hard to see how far we're come since essentially being under the purview of the Hudson's Bay Company.

So I'm very conflicted about the idea of Canada right now. I know that, at the bottom of it, I like being from this country. I believe that there are core values in Canada that are objectively good. I just think that we could do a lot better.

Sum 41's Deryck Whibley:

Tim Hortons. Not the actual guy — the donuts!

Arkells' Max Kerman:

I think of us as a pretty level-headed country. We've been playing a lot in America lately, and to me, they have the highest highs and the lowest lows. I'm grateful that Canada seems to have a more realistic sense of self.


Luke Doucet: I guess I think about home, mostly. And I travel a lot. And because I'm a runner, I stare at maps a lot. I'm quite a map junkie. I've memorized most Canadian cities. Anywhere I've been to play I have a pretty clear sense of, so I have a pretty intimate visual understanding of places that I go to in this country. I love geography and I love maps, but I'm not really answering the question, am I? One of my favourite things to do is to look down from a plane and figure out where I am exactly. Like oh that's that river and that's that town and that's that lake way over there.

Melissa McClelland: I think home. I think of space, lots of open space. I think of clean and warm and all good things.

Carly Rae Jepsen:

My family, I think. Musically, I think of artists like Joni Mitchell. I also think of Vancouver, and my summers there, and a lot of the evolution of me becoming a writer and artist. We used to play a lot of open mic nights, my friends and I, and it was just such a fun time, a time to be brave. You'd almost write a song a week, so that you could show it on Thursday night at the ANZA Club, and see if you could make the crowd shut up and listen to the song. You knew you really had them if you could.

Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson:

Lakes and compromise.

Bry Webb:

I think of the First Nations' protesters who crashed the Harper meeting with the Vancouver Board of Trade — that's significant to me. Anybody who is looking out for the land: the Wellington Water Watchers, who were a big part of squashing the Mega Quarry plan; everyone who has been standing up against the Line 9 pipeline development, the Northern Gateway pipeline. Yeah, anyone who is defending the physical country rather than the administration or the financial interests of the country.

Chad VanGaalen:

I think of the best of the best. I feel pretty lucky to be a Canadian. I'm not patriotic at all. I hate that shit. I wake up a lucky man. I honestly think about all the bullshit that other people have to go through. And I know Stephen Harper is mouth-fucking us all to death right now and this whole country, but we're still so lucky, man. It's crazy. Just driving across this country as many times as I have on tour and vacation, it's ridiculous man. Every single time I go anywhere it blows my mind.

Kevin Drew:

I think of kind people who say I'm sorry.

Sam Roberts:

That's an ever-changing picture. When I grew up — my parents are from South Africa — I didn't know what Canada was. I knew what Montreal was, I knew what Montreal in the west island was. It was a very small world back then. I knew more about life in South Africa than I did in Canada. But as I get older, my definition of the place has changed. Being in a band puts you in this position where you're not just going to Winnipeg and Saskatoon; we're going to these really small, out of the way communities. That's where you have to work to find the thread that joins you there living in downtown Montreal to that person living in rural Saskatchewan. So what is the thread that joins the two of you together? That's a very tough thing to put your finger on and define. In my experience, it's been — the truth — hockey, weather, cold. But more importantly, it's the things we're not afraid to stand up and say in the face of adversity over time. Canada has always taken a very strong stance on the international level when it comes to sticking up for something that you feel is unjust, and that's something that we have to preserve more than anything. That's always under threat because it's so much easier to bow out to the powers that be. For somewhere with a small population the size of Canada, I think we have commanded — in the past — a great deal of respect in the international community for not being afraid to take the hard stance on something. You see that everywhere you go. If it's not the definition, it's the glue. And that's something we need: a lot of glue. We've got a lot of real estate to keep together.

Death from Above's Sebastien Grainger:

That's a weird question. I'm not a nationalistic type person. Any answer to this question is so uncool. I think about Gord Downie on a skateboard doing an olly over the CN Tower.

Alexisonfire/City and Colour's Dallas Green:

I think of home.

Alanis Morissette:

I think of kindness and I think of natural beauty. And curiosity.

Joel Plaskett:

Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You."

William Shatner:

I think of blue skies and red maple leaves and little toadstools at the bottom of a tree. Y'know, the yin and yang of Canada.

Fucked Up's Damian Abraham:

This probably won't endear me to my fellow Canadians, but I live in Toronto because I honestly can't imagine living anywhere else. It's a very walkable city, with tons of great food, lots of green space and it's a big city where everyone seems to know everyone. This isn't to say there aren't tons of other great cities in Canada that I love visiting but Toronto is my home.

Margaret Cho:

I think I should probably qualify for a Juno. I work with so many Canadian musicians on [Cho Depedent] and on my next [album]: Tegan and Sara, A.C. Newman, Kevin Drew, Lucas Silveira of the Cliks, Tommy Chong.

Tommy Chong:

Marc Emery's pot café in Vancouver.

Jully Black:

I think of diversity. But I also think of denial. Canadians are mostly in denial about the current state of the industry.

Kid Koala:

Psychedelic turntable rock.

Buck 65:

The high would maybe be my Radiohead thing. They were doing some dates in Canada around Kid A I think, and Radiohead was the talk at that time. They were doing press and all of a sudden one day, my phone kept ringing with people saying, "Holy shit, I just heard an interview with Radiohead and they were talking about you." So I thought, "Holy cow, what's going on?" That was followed up by a call from their manager to mine, saying they wanted to meet me. So I travelled out to Montreal to meet them and, after that amazing day, they just started helping me out with my career. Getting that endorsement from Radiohead, not in terms of being a big boost to my career, but that kind of acknowledgment and recognition from artists I really admire would always mean more to me than signing record deals or making money. It's hard to think of something that tops that.

The New Pornographers' A.C. Newman:

Myself. Ian & Sylvia. Gordon Lightfoot. Stompin' Tom Connors. Tommy Hunter. Wayne & Shuster. You know — all the classics.

Seán Cullen:

I think of beavers playing guitar and being hit by Bobby Hull wrist shots. And snow.

Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning:

I think of a whole lot of other places than Toronto I'd like to live. It's a big country; there are so many beautiful little spots. It's a good place to operate in my line of work, here in Toronto.

Cadence Weapon:

Flannel. Rye. Workmanship.

k.d. lang:


Andy Stochansky:

Of that warm feeling you get when the national anthem comes on TV at two a.m. and seeing the same video clip that goes with it (Inuit, Mounties, winning the silver medal in the '76 Montreal Games etc.) since I was a kid.

Rick Mercer:

Oh god, that's a loaded question, isn't it? Anyone who's been lucky enough to travel internationally certainly has a different view of Canada once they've stepped outside it. You're aware of Canada's reputation on the world stage and that's something everyone should be very proud of. That's never far from the back of my mind.


The moose. It should be our emblem. I don't think I've even seen one, but I really like them. I'm sure I've seen one.


Mystical, a mystical feeling. We have no identity, so basically we're chameleons. When Canadians figure that out and see that that's the key to our intelligence, is that we're the observer, we sit here like chess pieces and we can watch everything. We can choose to be down with a little American culture, a little African, a little Spanish. That's what I tried to do with my album. I took everything and put it in a big pot, a true melting pot. That's what I think about Canada.


I think of my favourite Canadian sweater that I wore on the front of the I Gotta Rash record, released in 1998. I think of that because soon after that album cover photo was taken, we played a gig in Olympia, Washington, with Sleater-Kinney, who actually asked us to open for them on New Year's Eve, and we got paid $500 U.S., which was our biggest payday up until that point. I was just so grateful, so I gave my favourite Canadian flag sweater to Carrie of Sleater-Kinney. For years afterward I would think "Oh God, I wish I didn't give that sweater to Sleater-Kinney, but no, they deserved it, they supported us." To my amazement, though, about a month ago, I went to my P.O. Box and there it was: my sweater, just sitting there! It had been returned, six years later, and I didn't even ask for it back! What a beautiful woman, thank you Carrie Sleater-Kinney!

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