As It Happens·Q&A

Punk rocker Art Bergmann on his Order of Canada appointment: 'I just thought it was a joke'

Art Bergmann, who has spent his life writing anti-establishment songs, was honoured for his "indelible contributions to the Canadian punk music scene, and for his thought-provoking discourse on social, gender and racial inequalities."

'I have been toiling in the underground for years and awards like this are kind of anathema'

Rock singer Art Bergmann is being honoured for his 'indelible contributions to the Canadian punk music scene, and for his thought-provoking discourse on social, gender and racial inequalities.' (Lisa MacIntosh photo/Submitted by Art Bergmann)

Punk musician Art Bergmann has a message for the government that just awarded him its highest civilian honour. 

"The Canadian government should stop taking First Nations to court ... and give them fresh water, drinking water, and suitable housing, and to honour the treaties," says Bergmann, one of the latest inductees to the Order of Canada.

Bergmann, who has spent his life writing anti-establishment songs, was honoured for his "indelible contributions to the Canadian punk music scene, and for his thought-provoking discourse on social, gender and racial inequalities," said Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

He made a splash in the Vancouver punk scene in the '70s and '80s as the frontman for the K-Tels, which was later renamed the Young Canadians. He now produces solo work from his home in Rocky View County, Alta.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about what it's like to win an award from the power he's spent his life raging against. Here is part of their conversation. 

First of all, congratulations.

Well, a thank you is in order, I suppose. Thank you very much. I'm deeply surprised and humbled.

What first went through your mind when you got the news?

I just thought it was a joke by maybe some friends that have grown up through the years and now work ... at the Governor General's office.

Why would you think it was a joke?

Because I have been toiling in the underground for years, and awards like this are kind of anathema. So, you know, this would be the ultimate leg-pulling, I would think.

Well, the Governor General, in recognizing you, says that ... it is for ... your "indelible contributions to the Canadian punk music scene" and for [your] "thought-provoking discourse on social, gender and racial inequalities." How does that sound to you?

That sounds great. That sounds wonderful. It's a lot better than somebody [who] referred to me in the Edmonton Journal as a "generic rock singer" and which I take great offence to.

Why?

Because rock singers are generally assholes if I may use the term, and narcissists, and I hope not to be that, ever.

When you were in the height of the punk scene, would it have occurred to you that one day you would be honoured with the Order of Canada for being a key part of the punk scene?

No, never. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever.

It almost seems counter to what punk is.

We were against the idea of power and power of the state.

Yeah, and so it's quite a leap.

It's quite a leap. I'm sure the screams of "sellout" will be coming fast and furious as we go, but I assure everyone that there's no 30 pieces of silver involved.

I was radicalized by shows like As It Happens, especially after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry.- Art Bergmann, punk musician

What did punk mean to you when you first came across it?

It meant ultimate freedom, ultimate tearing down of status quos wherever they might be.

When you said it meant freedom for you — freedom from what?

Well, at the time, I was just writing songs ... and not having any direction, and it taught me that there are things to fight against in this world, and you can use music to do it.

Who were your punk idols? Who first inspired you?

Well, I don't like the term idol. I prefer the term iconoclasts. Like, the first time I heard maybe the Sex Pistols was a mind-blowing moment to feel that piss and vinegar coming through the speakers. It was a glorious moment.

It's kind of funny, the Sex Pistols and God Save the Queen, and now you're getting the Governor General's award.

Well, I hope to use it as a platform. Does power come with this award? I'm not sure, but I hope to use it to outline several of the problems we still face as a hopefully progressing nation.

Bergmann says he hopes to use the Order of Canada's platform to highlight inequality. (Kenneth Locke )

Tell us more about that, because that is actually one of the things that you're being honoured for, fights for social, gender and racial equality. 

Actually, I was radicalized by shows like As It Happens, especially after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. You couldn't go by a night, I don't think, [without] another story about it on the CBC, which was news to, I'm sure, 95 per cent of the nation. And it hopefully shocked us out of our reverie as this great democratic and free country, when we were just another empire.

So you want to get your message out. You have the platform now. What's the key thing you want us to think about today?

Today, the key thing, I think, is the Canadian government should stop taking First Nations to court ... and give them fresh water, drinking water, and suitable housing, and to honour the treaties.

Where did this activism, this desire for honesty and equality, come from for you?

From my mother and father.

My dad actually escaped the civil war, the Russian civil war, from the Ukraine. He was actually a settler himself ... and they thrived there in their farms, not knowing that they were usurping the land of the Tartars that lived there before them.

They had to escape. And in spite of that, my dad became a small-C Christian socialist. And by the age of six or seven years, he had us stapling together pamphlets for his union. And that's where I got my first basic education in organizing.

I'm not that big of an organizer, being a punk rocker at first trying to destroy organizations, but I learned a great lesson from my dad, who, in spite of the odds, fought for socialism.

What would your parents think of you getting the Order of Canada?

The music I made was a mystery to my dad, because he was a, you know, a classical churchy kind of musical guy, but I'm sure he'd be very proud at this moment. He's gone now.

Your path has probably not always been an easy one. The recipe for success for a punk artist is an unusual one. Do you have any regrets, any things you'd like to build on?

How could I regret anything? I mean, this my life. This is what it's been. I'm doomed to getting not much of a monetary reward. And that's OK. That's not the point.

I understand you've got a new album coming out. Tell me a little bit about it.

What's it about? Well, wow. The last four years have been inspiring as far as the president, who shall not be named, letting loose all these racist tropes all over the world and giving fascism new life when it should be destroyed everywhere it's seen. With fascism uniting with Evangelicals in the United States, the most dangerous combination, and we've got to raise our voices to wipe it out.

It's called Late Stage Empire Dementia — how all empires will eat themselves and destroy themselves. And also about, you know, mass incarceration and genocide, of course, what our own country is built on. And there's also a song about your Second Amendment gun nuts and basically how to deal with the ignorance and the uneducated masses. I mean, slogans and sloganeering aren't going to do it. Maybe a song or two will do it.

Obviously, you can't have the traditional Order of Canada ceremony right now. We hear it's being delayed until perhaps you can. What would the Art Bergmann in his 20s say if he could see you walk into Rideau Hall and accept this award from the Governor General?

I mean, do I have to wear a penguin suit?


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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