A brief history of Canada as told through popular lyrics
From Buffy Sainte-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot to Maestro and Drake, this is Canada in song
If you listen closely, you can hear the history of Canada being sung across the country. Every time a musician draws inspiration from what's going on around them in the present, or looks to the past to bring an old story into a new light, they're helping to create a canon of songs that tell the story of how we got to where we are today.
Below, CBC Music has gathered a selection of songs that tell the stories, both big and small, of Canada.
And on Canada Day, at noon local time, you can tune in to Radio One for a one-hour special hosted by Daniel Greaves called Records of Time: Songs About our History. Greaves will talk with Canadian artists — including iskwē, Joe Sealy and Sarah Harmer — about the stories behind the songs of theirs that have been included in this list.
You can listen to the piece in full below, produced by Arianne Robinson.
Pre-Confederation and colonization
Buffy Sainte-Marie's "My Country 'tis of thy People You're Dying" isn't about one thing — it's about everything colonizers have destroyed within and pushed onto Indigenous populations across Turtle Island. Residential schools. Language extinction. Genocide. "Can't you see how their poverty's profiting you?" Sainte-Marie sings. "My country 'tis of thy people you're dying."
The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens
Our life blood is shut up in your chemical tanks
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hand
And surprise in your eyes, that we're lacking in thanks
For the blessings of civilization you brought us
The lessons you've taught us.
1720-2020: Cape Breton coal mining
Coal mining began in Cape Breton, N.S., in the 1700s to fuel the construction of the Fortress of Louisbourg, and it became a significant industry in the province, with more than 300 underground coal mines having been in operation since 1720. The last coal mine in Nova Scotia closed this year.
Rita MacNeil, who is from Big Pond, Cape Breton, visited the Sydney mines early in her career — and the miners' stories she heard there sparked her hit song "Working Man."
At the age of sixteen years
Oh, he quarrels with his peers
Who vowed they'd never see another one
In the dark recess of the mines
Where you age before your time
And the coal dust lies heavy on your lungs
1755-64: the Great Upheaval
Between 1755 and 1764, more than 10,000 Acadians were forced to forfeit their lands around the Bay of Fundy to the British authorities in a mass expulsion. They were moved by ship to other colonies down the Atlantic, with thousands dying in the squalid conditions onboard. Many ended up in New Orleans, where they helped develop Cajun culture.
The Band's Robbie Robertson wrote "Acadian Driftwood" about their plight.
They signed a treaty
And our homes were taken
They didn't give a damn.
Try to raise a family
End up an enemy
Over what went down on the Plains of Abraham.
1813: Laura Secord's heroic warning
Laura Secord is famous for having walked 32 kilometres out of American-occupied territory in June 1813 to warn British forces of an impending American attack, effectively stopping the invasion.
Come all you brave young soldier lads
With your strong and manly bearing
I'll tell you a tale of a woman bold and her deed of honest daring
Laura Secord was American-born in the state of Massachusetts
But she made her home in Canada and proved so faithful to us
1830-90: the life of Crowfoot
Crowfoot was a Siksika chief and warrior who was known as a voice for peace and reason. He negotiated with the Canadian government on behalf of the Blackfoot, and was key to the signing of the controversial Treaty 7.
Willie Dunn sang about Crowfoot's life and death, as well as the damaging effects of colonialism, on "The Ballad of Crowfoot."
Crowfoot, Crowfoot, why the tears?
You've been a brave man, for many years.
Why the sadness? Why the sorrow?
Maybe there'll be a better tomorrow.
Maybe one day you'll find honesty,
Instead of the usual treachery,
Perhaps one day the truth may prevail,
And the warmth of love which it does entail.
1845: the Franklin Expedition
Sir John Franklin was a British naval officer and famous Arctic explorer. However, he is best known for the tragic 1845 expedition that sought to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Canadian Arctic. His two ships became trapped in the ice, and all crew members perished, making it the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.
The ships' whereabouts were unknown until they were found in 2014 and 2016 in present-day Nunavut. It's a mystery that inspired Stan Rogers to write one of his best-known songs, "Northwest Passage."
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
1848-1970: Halifax's Africville
Africville was a Black community in Halifax, on the south shore of the Bedford Basin. Seaview United Baptist Church, a post office, stores and a school were all part of the neighbourhood, though the City of Halifax would not provide the families with sewage, clean water or garbage disposal — but it did put a dump, a hospital and a prison around the houses. By 1970, the City had relocated the 400 families who lived in the community and razed Africville to the ground.
Jazz musician Joe Sealy's father was born in Africville, and the musician wrote "Africville" to "represent the beginnings of the community, its development and its demise at the end of it," as he told CBC's Daniel Greaves for Records of Time: Songs About our History. Sealy would later create an entire album based around the track, called Africville Suites, which won the 1997 Juno for contemporary jazz album.
1859-1959: Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane
For 100 years, inmates who were deemed "criminally insane" at the Kingston Penitentiary were moved to the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Not big enough for all of its inmates, the asylum relegated women to the stables until a new wing was built for them in 1868.
When Simone Schmidt, a.k.a. Fiver, came across that information, they embarked on an album of fictional stories of women patients based on in-depth research into the asylum's case files from 1856 and 1881 — giving a voice to the voiceless more than a century later.
1886: the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway
The Conservative government of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald spearheaded the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which connected Montreal to Vancouver and was later dubbed "the National Dream."
When the CBC commissioned Gordon Lightfoot to write a song for Canada's centennial in 1967, the result was the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."
For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.
1869-70: Red River Rebellion
Unsurprisingly, when the Dominion of Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company were working on the details of the Rupert's Land transfer in the 1860s, no one had consulted the Indigenous community, whose traditional hunting grounds marked that land. The Métis rallied around a then 25-year-old Louis Riel — a movement called the Red River Rebellion — and seized Upper Fort Garry, creating a provisional government in protest and leading to Rupert's Land's entry into the Canadian Federation and the eventual creation of Manitoba.
Thomas Scott was a surveyor for the government, and singer-songwriter James Keelaghan's song "Red River Rising" tells a sliver of the story from his perspective. Scott was captured during the Fort Garry seizing, and later executed.
Well, Thomas Scott he took the lead, we rode to Portage Town
Cory's on the other side
Métis riders on our tail, it's soon they rode us down
Cory's on the other side.
1903: the Frank Slide
The former mining town of Frank sits in the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta, and in 1903 a massive rock slide killed nearly 100 people and took out most of the town's mining infrastructure.
The Rural Alberta Advantage commemorated the tragedy on their 2008 album, Hometowns.
And under the rubble of the mountain that tumbled
I'll hold you forever
I'll hold you forever
They'll build up another on the bodies of our brothers
I'll love you forever.
July 8, 1917: the death of Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson is one of the most famous painters in Canada, but his death, more than 100 years ago, is still shrouded in mystery. Thomson disappeared into Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake, and the only trace of him to be found was his overturned canoe.
You think I don't know you're there
But I spy campfire smoke in the air
Ride along prevailing breeze
Wave hello with only branch and leaf.
July 1, 1916: Battle of the Somme
On the first day of World War I's Battle of the Somme, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment made a tragic advance at Beaumont Hamel, all but wiping them out. In total, 324 were killed, or presumed dead, and 386 were wounded. Great Big Sea sang about the event in "Recruiting Sergeant."
The call came from London, for the last July drive
To the trenches with the regiment, prepare yourselves to die.
The roll call next morning, just a handful survived
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me.
Oct. 22, 1966: the death of Chanie Wenjack
Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwa boy, ran away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont., only to be found dead a week later beside the railway tracks.
Gord Downie sang about the event on 2016's The Secret Path, but it was immortalized more than 40 years earlier by Indigenous musician Willie Dunn in the song "Charlie Wenjack."
Walk on, little Charlie
Walk on through the snow
Heading down the railway line
Trying to make it home.
Jan 31, 1970: David Milgard's wrongful conviction
David Milgard was wrongfully convicted of the murder of 20-year-old nursing student, Gail Miller. He was released after spending 23 years in prison.
The Tragically Hip famously wrote "Wheat Kings" about the Milgard case.
Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, 'we always knew that he'd go free.
1970s: the end of log driving in North America
Canada began log driving, a method of moving logs from forests to mills using river currents, in 1806. It was an integral transportation method for decades until the 1970s, when changes in environmental legislation and the use of trucks revolutionized the industry.
To memorialize the tradition, Wade Hemsworth wrote "The Log Driver's Waltz," a now beloved folk song that was originally released in 1979 in a National Film Board animated film soundtracked by a version of the song sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and the Mountain City Four.
For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly
Yes, birling down and down white water
The log driver's waltz pleases girls completely.
1970: Reggie 'the Riverton Rifle' Leach enters the NHL
Ojibway hockey player Reggie Leach entered the NHL in 1970 and in his 14 years in the league, he won a Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy and was selected as an all-star twice. Eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame since 1986, Leach has yet to be inducted.
In 2013, Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson put together a petition, and an accompanying song, for Leach to get the recognition he deserves.
(We, the undersigned, put forth his name)
Whereas photos from the old Tribune
Of Reggie smiling with the Stanley Cup
Curled their corners, dropped off bedroom walls
Left a square of where they used to be.
October 1970: the October Crisis
In 1970, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped and killed Quebec's Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, in what became known as the October Crisis. Laporte's body was eventually found in the trunk of a car.
The Tragically Hip's "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" was written about the event and told from the killer's point of view.
Then I found a place, it's dark and it's rotted.
It's a cool, sweet kinda place where the coppers won't spot it.
Nov. 10, 1975: the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, resulting in the deaths of all 29 crew members onboard. While technically an American freighter, it sank in Canadian waters near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
It became the inspiration for one of Gordon Lightfoot's most famous songs, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.
Feb. 15, 1982: The Ocean Ranger disaster
The Ocean Ranger was an offshore drilling unit 267 km east of St. John's, N.L., that was hit by a major storm and sank, killing all 84 crew members on board.
Folk icon Ron Hynes wrote about the disaster in his song, "Atlantic Blue."
What colour is a heartache from a love lost at sea?
What shade of memory never fades but lingers to eternity?
And how dark is the light of day that sleepless eyes of mine survey?
Is that you, Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold as you.
1988 Summer Olympics silver
Guyanese-Canadian boxer Egerton Marcus won a silver medal in Seoul, South Korea. In "Nothing at All," a song about Black excellence, Maestro Fresh Wes devotes a verse to Marcus's achievement.
I'll talk about my homey Egerton Marcus.
A brother from Toronto who's oh so great.
A little bit of weight champ in 88.
He excelled to the second highest level in Korea
Bringing home a silver medal.
Dec. 6, 1989: École Polytechnique massacre
On Dec. 6, 1989, Mark Lépine entered Montreal's École Polytechnique and killed 14 women in what was the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history at the time. The event, which is now commemorated every year as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, led to stricter gun control laws in Canada.
In response to the tragedy, folk artist Stephen Fearing wrote "The Bells of Mourning" and, later on, a followup to that called "Assassin's Apprentice," which Fearing said was "an attempt on my part to get into the head of Mark Lépine a little bit more."
Tonight I am speechless
My head is filled with pouring rain
As the darkness falls on Montreal
When violence is shrieking
The city streets will run with pain
Until the moon can shed no light at all.
May 2, 1992: the Westray mining disaster
Twenty-six Nova Scotian miners were killed when the Westray coal mine exploded in May 1992, a result of a methane gas leak. The tragedy led to the creation of the Westray Act, enacted in 2004, which provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations when workers are injured or killed on the job.
It also inspired the song "Westray" by Sarah Harmer's former band, Weeping Tile.
A natural disaster comes out wasn't natural after all
In a small town on the East Coast, well they've gathered in a firehall
And who forgot to let the canary out?
Will you be there when they're pulling bodies out?
January 1998: North American ice storm
This massive storm struck a number of Canadian cities, stretching from eastern Ontario to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In Montreal, the city was forced to shut down for a week, and the event served as the inspiration behind "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)," a single from Arcade Fire's breakout album, Funeral.
I woke up with the power out
Not really something to shout about
Ice has covered up my parents' hands
Don't have any dreams, don't have any plans.
Sept. 24, 2003: Hurricane Juan hits the Maritimes
Hurricane Juan was the worst storm to hit Halifax since 1893. Causing $300 million in damages across the Maritimes, the tropical cyclone also killed eight people.
Two years later, Dartmouth, N.S., artist Joel Plaskett penned a song about the hurricane titled "Natural Disaster."
The air was getting heavy, I knew that it was coming
So I started up the Chevy and kept the motor running
A storm came down upon us and flooded all the rivers
Surrounded by piranhas and the doctors who deliver.
July 16, 2012: Danzig Street shooting
A shooting occurred at a barbecue on Danzig Street in Scarborough, killing Joshua Yasay and Shyanne Charles and injuring 24 others. Police described it as the worst act of gun violence in Toronto's history.
Drake used it to make a rare political song, teaming up with Snoop Dogg (under the name Snoop Lion) for "No Guns Allowed."
News from back home
This when it hurts to be gone
Two more young names to be carved out of stone
One summer day that went horribly wrong.
May 1, 2016: Fort McMurray wildfire
This wildfire, which swept through the region of Fort McMurray, was the largest evacuation in Alberta history, forcing 88,000 people out of their homes.
Nils Edenloff, frontman of the Rural Alberta Advantage, grew up there and when his band released "Beacon Hill," a song inspired by this event, he wrote: "Beacon Hill was one of the hardest hit areas and some of the footage that came out of there made it look just biblical — real fire and brimstone sort of stuff."
While the fire seals our little fate
I'll get you all the way home
No lies living this time, you never never want to grow.
August 2014 and Aug. 9, 2016: the deaths of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie
On Aug. 17, 2014, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body was found wrapped in plastic and a duvet cover in Winnipeg's Red River. Two years later, 22-year-old Colten Boushie was shot and killed while out drinking with his friends. The Indigenous youths were just two of many lives lost to violence, and the investigation into Fontaine's murder partially led the Canadian government to order the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
On the anniversary of both Fontaine and Boushie's accused killers' trials — both of which ended in acquittal — Cree singer iskwē released the song "Little Star," a response to racist media coverage during the youths' deaths and subsequent trials.
Have you seen the news today
Did you hear what they had to say
About our lost star
They take in ways I can't understand
Place the blame on her like she was nobody's child
March 28, 2017: Edmonton Oilers clinch playoff spot
The last time the Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup was in 1990 and in 2017, they earned their first spot in the playoffs since 2006.
To mark this momentous occasion, Edmonton-born rapper Cadence Weapon released an ode to the team's captain, Connor McDavid. The team unfortunately got eliminated in the second round, and have yet to return to the playoffs since.
We don't play for the Flames
Yeah we caught a few L's
Now we back in the game
Hope we see a banner getting raised.
Sept. 25, 2018: Romeo Saganash stands up to Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons
NDP MP Romeo Saganash accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of not caring about Indigenous peoples' rights during talks over the Trans Mountain pipeline. "Why doesn't the prime minister just say the truth and tell Indigenous peoples that he doesn't give a f--k about their rights?" Saganash asked the House in September 2018.
A year later, DJ duo A Tribe Called Red commemorated that day by releasing "The OG," featuring powwow drum group Black Bear, which excerpts Saganash's House of Commons speech.
Mr. Speaker, sounds like a most important relationship, doesn't it?
Why doesn't the prime minister just say the truth
And tell Indigenous peoples that he doesn't give a f--k about their rights?
Anti-Black racism, police shootings of Black people
Regis Korchinski-Paquet. D'Andre Campbell. Nicholas Gibbs. Olando Brown. Pierre Coriolan. There is no date on this entry because police killings of Black Canadians and anti-Black racism have many dates — too many to list, and without an end in sight.
In October 2018, Shad released A Short Story About a War, a concept album set in a dystopian desert world of Shad's making, but its themes and allegories of violence and racism are all reality. The song "The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink)" covers a list of oppressions — slavery, real estate segregation, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the prison system — that spans centuries, and it came with a video that matches striking images with these standout lines:
We wasn't thought of
We wasn't brought up and taught we was set up
That's why we get caught up
Y'all discarded us
Put them bars up
Of course we got guards up
We hard cuz we're hard up
They got them start-ups and Starbucks'
We got a couple of stars till they turn 'em to stardust
They starve us
Can't even drink water
Up North with that Flint water
All in the sink as they sink farther.