Arts·Point of View

Dearest London, Ontario: What the Junos' spotlight on my hometown means to me

The city is usually considered "resoundingly average" — but it features a surprisingly rich arts history.

The city is usually considered 'resoundingly average' — but it features a surprisingly rich arts history

There's more to London, Ontario than meets the eye. (David Donnelly/CBC)

When I was a kid, back before the dawn of music streaming and custom Spotify playlists, I was a hoarder of compilation albums — and perhaps no album stands as a more formative relic of my youth than the Juno Awards 2004 CD. The disc was my introduction to the anthemic release of tracks like Nelly Furtado's "Powerless (Say What You Want)" and Our Lady Peace's "Innocent," 2004 thus marking my first tryst with music that I knew and was proud happened to be Canadian. Although Nickelback swept the ceremony that spring, stealing Group of the Year from Our Lady Peace and effectively crushing my 10-year-old Juno dreams, 15 years on I couldn't help but feel a little elevated at the announcement that the 49th awards would be hosted in my hometown of London, Ontario.

It should come as no surprise that winning the bid to host the biggest night in Canadian music can prove metamorphic for a city the size of London. The economic impact that is believed will be generated by Sunday's ceremony and its week-long orbit of local events — like the sold-out JUNOFest  is estimated at the $12 million mark. Numerous businesses have assembled special Juno storefronts for the festivities, and outreach programs like London Girls Rock Camp have received a boost in the form of a $25,000 instrument grant from the Junos' MusiCounts initiative. The bountiful cultural scene that London has long been harbouring — one that is often overshadowed by nearby Toronto or Stratford — is receiving its well-deserved time to shine.

Former Londoner Lido Pimienta accepts the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.

London, Ontario. For me, the name conjures up bus depots, trampolines, geese loitering around a riverbank, Slushies sipped in the parking lot of some plaza, housing developments ever at war with city borders. The thing is: London can be pretty conservative. At its most innocuous, the city was deemed so resoundingly average that it became the go-to test market for new products before being launched nationwide (for instance, it's where the Chicken McNugget had its grand reveal back in 1983). But there are some dark spots tainting London's recent history that are far less easy to let fade from memory. Just last year, the Thames Valley District School Board pulled its routine funding of the Grand Theatre High School Project's musical Prom Queen, based on the true story of a gay student fighting for the right to take his boyfriend to prom. When Colombian-Canadian musician Lido Pimienta accepted the 2017 Polaris Prize, she addressed the racism she encountered as an immigrant in the city: "I hope that the Aryan specimen who told me to go back to my country two weeks after arriving in London, Ontario is watching this."

Anecdotes like Pimienta's and hostility I've personally witnessed can make London feel so smothering of any creative spark that it becomes hard for me to imagine a phoenix rising from those ashes and moulding art from nothing. Yet, against all odds, so many great artists do hail from London. For one, it's the birthplace of the most nominees for acting Oscars of any Canadian city. And as CBC Music finds in their new special London Calling, the city also lays claim to a number of musicians renowned across Canada and the globe. It's as if, nestled between the diverse hubs of Detroit and Toronto, Londoners feel an enhanced urgency to get together and force some noise upon that otherwise banal landscape.

H.B. Beal Secondary School (Thames Valley District School Board/tvdsb.ca)

David Weaver has taught at H.B. Beal Secondary School, where he is the current head of the school's music department, for 20 years. His students have been invited to perform at New York City's Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, among others, as well as to present the Canadian premiere of composer Christopher Tin's song cycle Calling All Dawns. And while Beal's musical theatre program has seen numerous students go on to successful careers in the arts, Weaver wants to emphasize that it's not about turning every one of his pupils into a famous musician — instead, it's about instilling a lifelong passion for the arts. "Every kid on the planet deserves to be introduced to the joy of music," he says — a notion he has held firmly throughout his career at the school. A belief in fostering arts education isn't exclusive to Beal. "Of all the cities in this country," Weaver tells me, "you'd be hard-pressed to find others that have as many high quality music and arts programs."

Conductor of The London Singers, David Weaver knows better than any that London is abounding with world-class venues for live music performance, not the least including Beal's auditorium, which opened during the First World War and has hosted the likes of Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould and Chuck Berry. Every year, Weaver's students get the opportunity to perform as part of the Variety Is... Showcase Concert on the Budweiser Gardens stage — the same stage inhabited by all the prominent acts who pass through the city. Now that the Junos are about to similarly transpire there, Weaver says, it should only add to the buzz Beal musicians will feel as they gear up to perform for the annual show.

Sarah McLachlan will host the 2019 Juno Awards in London.

When I look back, some of my most cherished memories from London involve my years spent putting on shows with Original Kids Theatre Company, wading through Sunfest some humid summer afternoon and getting my healthy dose of misbehaviour at my friends' house parties that doubled as full-blown DIY basement concerts. So, whatever. If the actual outcome of the Juno Awards lets me down this weekend, I won't even be mad. The fact that the nation's eyes and ears will be tuned in to listen to the voice of a habitually unsung community is reason enough for celebration to me.