Skip to main content

Learn More

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom open until August 25, 2019!

Learn More

Face the music: Canadian musicians and human rights Breaking down barriers and advancing rights for all

By Julia Peristerakis

Two women and a man stand on a stage while a group of people in white shirts stand on risers behind them. The woman in the centre is waving to someone off-camera, and the man on the right is holding a microphone.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Justin Tang

Story details

Music is a universal language that transcends geographic and cultural barriers. Music moves us in a way that words alone cannot. But it can do much more than evoke emotion. Music can draw attention to important social and political issues. It can give voice to the disenfranchised. Music can change a person’s perspective and it can mobilize entire communities to action. Where people are struggling for recognition of their rights, you will often find songs of protest and of hope.

While music has long been used to accompany movements and inspire change, during the 1960s and 1970s, important conversations and movements for human rights were developing across Canada, including women’s rights, Indigenous rights, linguistic rights, LGBTTQ* rights, along with commitments to international human rights treaties and humanitarian aid. At the same time, Canadian musicians were struggling to find national and international audiences prior to the new Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulations of 1970. These controversial regulations required Canadian radio stations to play a minimum amount of content developed by Canadians, leading to a surging music industry across the country. 

The combination of the developing Canadian music scene alongside a growing awareness of rights resulted in a groundswell of popular artists lending their voices to amplify issues at home and abroad. By using their platforms to effect change, Canadian musicians broke down barriers, challenged inequality, called on others to act and furthered human rights conversations in Canada and beyond.

Rita MacNeil rallies a feminist movement

Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s brought women’s rights to the mainstream as they organized for political, economic and social change. Music played a big role in rallies, conventions and celebrations. Many activists and singer-songwriters brought attention to a range of women’s issues, including childcare, employment, reproductive rights and violence against women. Feminist music of this era combined important political concerns with songs that emphasized women’s unique personal perspectives and experiences.

Rita MacNeil at the Mariposa Festival, 1975.

Photo: Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Mariposa Folk Foundation, F0511, ASC3498, Michael J. Jackson

In 1975, Nova Scotian Rita MacNeil released Born a Woman, considered to be one of the first feminist albums in Canada. The singer’s involvement in the Toronto Women’s Caucus – an influential feminist activist group – inspired her to write her first songs, which she would sing aloud at rallies and meetings.

To be born a woman, you quickly learn
Your body will be their first concern
The media, they’ve done so fine
Exploited our bodies and buried our minds

“Born a Woman” (1975) – Rita MacNeil

MacNeil went on to become one of Canada’s most beloved singers with a widely recognized catalogue that includes the 1986 female empowerment hit “Flying on Your Own.” Decades later, two historians revealed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had sent informants to spy on women’s liberation meetings, including one where Rita MacNeil was present.1

In this declassified RCMP surveillance report of a women’s liberation conference held at the University of Winnipeg in 1972, an informant describes Rita MacNeil as “the one who composes and sings women’s lib songs.”

Source: Extract from RCMP Security Service report regarding meeting of Canadian women’s liberation groups, April 1972. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service fonds. © Government of Canada

Jacqueline Lemay on women and power

The year 1975 also marked International Women’s Year. In recognition of this, French-Canadian singer-songwriter Jacqueline Lemay was asked by the United Nations to write a theme song. Lemay’s song, “La moitié du monde est une femme” (Half the world is a woman), explores how women are rarely represented in positions of power, even though they make up half of the population.

Video:

SONG: La moitié du monde est une femme
ARTIST: Jacqueline Lemay

Lyrics:

La moitié du monde est une femme
Qui jusqu'ici avait caché son âme
Elle parle aujourd'hui encore trop peu
Mais demain je vous dis c'est dans ses yeux
Que vous verrez une flamme

La moitié du monde est une femme
Aujourd'hui enfin elle réclame
Ce qui lui revient et ce qui est son droit
Il est bien fini le règne de l'unique roi
L'autre côté de la terre passe à la lumière
La moitié du monde est une femme
La moitié du monde est une femme

Celle qui attendait en silence
Aujourd'hui retrouve la confiance
Et le goût de vivre son propre destin
Et le goût de suivre son propre chemin
De prendre part à tout ce qui vient

L'avenir du monde est une femme
Une paix plus forte que les armes
Pour un nouveau jour, une autre humanité
Plus près de l'amour et plus près de la liberté
Un espoir qui s'avance, la dernière chance
La moitié du monde est une femme

Video description:

An image of an album cover with “La moitié du monde est une femme” and “Jacqueline Lemay” written on it. A woman is pictured from the shoulders up, with shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind and glistening in the sun. She is wearing a scarf and looking directly at the camera.

Bruce Cockburn takes aim at military violence

Throughout the 1980s, Bruce Cockburn often sang about his growing political concerns, including the effects of war and conflict on civilians around the world. While visiting a refugee camp in southern Mexico with Oxfam in 1983, Cockburn learned that the Guatemalan military had recently crossed the border to attack people in the camps.

Guatemalan children in class at a refugee camp in Chiapas, Mexico, 1990.

Photo: Getty Images, Corbis, Howard Davies

The quiet courage, the fierce determination and dignity of the refugees, the children still being children after all they’d seen – all of it hit me like an ice pick to the heart. [2]

Bruce Cockburn

Enraged by what he had witnessed, Cockburn wrote the song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” condemning the actions of the military.

Video:

SONG: If I Had a Rocket Launcher
ARTIST: Bruce Cockburn

Lyrics:

Here comes the helicopter – second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I'd make somebody pay

I don't believe in guarded borders and I don't believe in hate
I don't believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
if I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation – or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
if I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice – at least I've got to try
Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes.
Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
if I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die

Video description:

A man sings and plays guitar in the jungle among ruins. Footage changes throughout the video. Helicopters fly overhead and military trucks drive down roads. Women and children cry while they look at bodies in the street. A person looks at film negatives, newspaper clippings and photos in files marked “missing” “camps” and “Guatemala.” The man from the start of the video is shown again at the end, walking down an urban street. He turns around, looking right into the camera.

Women break industry records and barriers

The 1990s were a breakthrough decade for Canadian women in music. Artists like Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Céline Dion broke major industry records in the largely male-dominated music scene, selling millions of albums and charting hit singles worldwide. These women and others were trailblazers who challenged the status quo. 

Sarah McLachlan decided something had to be done when promoters did not want her to tour with another female artist and when radio stations would not play songs by women back-to-back. From her frustration came the idea for an all-women music festival, to prove that there was demand for women performers and that they had important and diverse perspectives to share. 

McLachlan launched Lilith Fair in 1997 and it evolved into an annual festival that ran for three years. It was among the top grossing music festivals at the time. Lilith Fair inspired a generation of young women and was a launching pad for many Canadian artists including Tegan and Sara, Nelly Furtado and Bif Naked.

Fans at Lilith Fair, the all-women music festival spearheaded by Sarah McLachlan, in Pasadena, California, 1998.

Photo: Reuters, Str Old

The hit single “O Siem” by Susan Aglukark reached number one in Canada in 1995, making her the first Inuk musician to break into the Canadian top 40. Aglukark’s song encouraging tolerance and an end to hate and racism was a huge hit in Canada. In her music and personal life, she has brought attention to the barriers and hardships facing Inuit in Canada.

Video:

SONG: O Siem
ARTIST: Susan Aglukark

Lyrics:

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom
Dance in the burning flame

Siem o siyeya, all people rich and poor
Siem o siyeya, those who do and do not know
Siem o siyeya, take the hand of one close by
Siem o siyeya, of those who know because they try
And watch the walls come tumbling down

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom
Dance in the burning flame

Siem o siyeya, all people of the world
Siem o siyeya, it's time to make the turn
Siem o siyeya, a chance to share your heart
Siem o siyeya, to make a brand new start
And watch the walls come tumbling down

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom
Dance in the burning flame
Fires burn in silence
Hearts in anger bleed
Wheel of change is turning
For the ones who truly need
To see the walls come tumbling down

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom
Dance in the burning flame

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom
Dance in the burning flame

O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we're all the same
O Siem, the fires of freedom

Video description:

An image of an album cover with “Susan Aglukark” and “This Child” written on it. A woman’s face looks down. She is wearing a gold headband across her forehead with strings of white, black, brown, and orange beads hanging down on either side.

When k.d. lang hit the pop and country scene, her offbeat and androgynous style of dress made her stand out from more traditional performers. Soon after the release of her very successful 1992 album Ingénue, k.d. lang publicly came out as a lesbian in the LGBTTQ* magazine The Advocate. There were few openly gay musicians at the time. lang’s actions helped to bring sexual identity and gender expression into the mainstream conversation

It’s taken me a long time to say yes to The Advocate because I know the repercussions are gonna be there. It’s like, I want to be out. I want to be out!

k.d. lang

K’naan finds hope in conflict

At 13 years old, K’naan left his home in Mogadishu, Somalia with his family when the civil war broke out. His family settled in Toronto where he began performing as a spoken word poet. K’naan’s first music album explored his experiences of war, displacement and migration. But it was his 2010 single “Wavin’ Flag” that caught worldwide attention when it was chosen as the official anthem for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Video:

SONG: Wavin’ Flag
ARTIST: K'naan

Lyrics:

When I get older, I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom just like a wavin' flag
So wave your flag, now wave your flag
Now wave your flag ohohoh

Born to a throne, stronger than Rome
A violence prone, poor people zone
But it's my home, all I have known
Where I got grown, streets we would roam

Out of the darkness, I came the farthest
Among the hardest survival
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak
Accept no defeat, surrender, retreat

So we struggling, fighting to eat
And we wondering when we'll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It's not far away, but for now we say

When I get older I will be stronger
I’ll make it better, struggle no longer
When I get older I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom just like a wavin' flag
So wave your flag, now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
ohohoh

So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
They got no occupation to buy no medication
See it’s a combination of no education
We can never get it say, tomorrow's generation
Cause they can't control us, no they can't hold us down
We gonna pick it up, even though we all struggling
Fighting to eat
And we wondering
When we'll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It's not far away, but for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger
I'll make it better, struggle no longer
When I get older, I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag
So wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Ohohoh

Ohhhh ohhhh ohhhhh ohhhh
And everybody will be singing it
Ohhhh ohhhh ohhhhh ohhhh
And you and I will be singing it
Ohhhh ohhhh ohhhhh ohhhh
And we all will be singing it
Ohhh ohh ohh

When I get older
I will be stronger, stronger, stronger
I will be stronger, stronger, stronger
I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag
So wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag
Now wave your flag

Yeah
Ohhhh ohhhh ohhhhh
Just like a wavin’ flag
Ohhhh ohhhh
Just like a wavin’ flag
Ohhhh ohhhh
Just like a wavin’ flag
Ohhhh ohhhh
Just like a wavin’ flag

Video description:

Three men wearing black are singing and dancing. One of the men is singing and dancing in many different places: on a beach, walking up a hill, in the woods, in a city, in a studio, on a concert stage and with other adults and children. These scenes are interspersed other scenes of the three men individually – walking in nature, talking to others in a small community setting, kissing a little girl, signing autographs, and dancing with friends.

This inspirational song, about finding hope and feeling empowered in times of violence and conflict, became an international hit. In 2010, “Wavin’ Flag” was recorded by Young Artists for Haiti, a supergroup of Canadian musicians, including Jully Black, Pierre Lapointe and Justin Bieber. The song raised funds in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Ariane Moffatt makes noise with Quebec students

Student activism has a long history in Canada, and in Quebec in particular. When the Quebec government moved to raise university tuition fees in 2011 and 2012, students took to the streets for months to protest.

Students protest in the downtown streets of Montreal against tuition hikes, 2012.

Photo: AFP, Rogerio Barbosa

In an attempt to end the protests, the provincial government under leader Jean Charest implemented a special law, Bill 78, limiting the right to protest. Many critiqued the anti-protest legislation as infringing on students’ rights. Outraged, tens of thousands of citizens joined the student strike. In reaction to the law, Quebec musician Ariane Moffatt re-released her song “Jeudi, 17 mai” (Thursday, May 17) with revised lyrics denouncing the anti-protest legislation. The new version immediately went viral.

Video:

SONG: Jeudi, 17 mai
ARTIST: Ariane Moffatt

Lyrics:

Twitter ne dérougit pas, il est 6 heures
Le Québec se réveille sous le règne de la peur
À Cannes c’est le festival de Dolan et ses sœurs
À l’Église on prie pro-vie chez les Conservateurs
Rouges et verts sont coincés dans la même fourrière
La planète dit adieu à sa grande Donna Summer
Y’a un frisson qui passe entre mes pieds et mon cœur

Je n’invente rien
C’est la presse qui parle
Ce 17 mai au matin
Je m’oppose à cette « loi spéciale »

Hollande survit à sa grande première
Le registre des armes à feu est réduit en poussières
Facebook: troisième pays en puissance sur la Terre
La Gaga censurée doit annuler des concerts
Pauvre Zampino sorti du lit à coup de marteau
Alors que Line Beauchamp doit enchaîner les mojitos
Partout dans les rues, des étudiants en colère
Almanach quotidien fumigènes dans l’atmosphère

Je n’invente rien
C’est Jean Charest qui parle
Ce 17 mai au matin
Je m’oppose à cette « loi spéciale »

[Excerpts from news stories and interviews; sounds of a protesting crowd]

Video description:

A caricature drawing of two men and a woman standing in front of a blackboard and dragging their nails down the board. They each have red squares pinned to their lapels. Above the blackboard, text reads “Le gouvernement impose une loi spéciale” (The government imposes a special law).

Reclaiming history

For decades, Indigenous musicians have been using music to call for change and bring attention to the effects of colonization and ongoing violations of their rights. More recently, there has been a resurgence of traditional Indigenous musical styles paired with contemporary sounds. Artists are preserving and promoting their heritage while celebrating the contemporary vibrancy of Indigenous cultures. 

Tanya Tagaq blends traditional Inuit throat singing with modern music styles in a unique way. Born and raised in Nunavut, she has been outspoken about violence against Indigenous women and violence against the earth. She has also spoken about her personal experience with racism, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Tagaq is an ardent proponent of traditional seal hunting as a means of supporting Inuit cultural practices and livelihoods.

Video:

SONG: Retribution
ARTIST: Tanya Tagaq

Lyrics:

Our mother grows angry
Retribution will be swift
We squander her soil and suck out her sweet black blood to burn it
We turn money into God and salivate over opportunities to crumple and crinkle our souls for that paper, that gold
Money has spent us
Left us in small boxes, dark rooms, bright screens, empty tombs
Left investing our time in hollow philosophies
To placate the fear of our bodies returning back into our mother
Demand awakening
The path we have taken has rotted
Ignite, stand upright, conduct yourself like lightning because
The retribution will be swift

[Throat singing]

Video description:

A woman in a dimly lit warehouse lights a fire on top of a pile of animal skins. She paints her face black in an aggressive manner. A woman then speaks directly to the camera. Back at the warehouse, two women dance, with their hands held like claws. A white wolf is seen walking in another part of the warehouse, and animations of various other animals, such as a moose and a bison, appear. As the video continues, the woman singing at the camera appears to become angered. The video speeds up and stutters in an unsettling fashion. Everything stops and the fire is shown again.

Calls to action

Reconciliation is an important theme in Canadian music today, and many Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists are using their music and platform to educate the public about the impacts of residential schools. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip released an album in 2016 that focused on the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young boy who died while trying to escape from a residential school. In addition to the album, Downie partnered with artist Jeff Lemire to release a graphic novel and an animated film. Even after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Downie spent the last months of his life encouraging all Canadians to become educated about Indigenous issues and take action for reconciliation. With the Wenjack family, Downie established the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund to support ongoing reconciliation initiatives.

Video:

SONG: The Stranger
ARTIST: Gord Downie

Lyrics:

I am a stranger
You can't see me
I am a stranger
Do you know what I mean?
I navigate the mud
I walk above the path
Jumpin' to the right
Then I jump to the left
On a secret path
The one that nobody knows
And I'm moving fast
On the path that nobody knows
And what I'm feelin'
Is anyone's guess
What is in my head
And what's in my chest
I'm not gonna stop
I'm just catching my breath
They're not gonna stop
Please just let me catch my breath
I am the stranger
You can't see me
I am the stranger
Do you know what I mean?
That is not my dad
My dad is not a wild man
Doesn't even drink
My dad, he's not a wild man
On a secret path
The one that nobody knows
And I'm moving fast
On the path that nobody knows
I am a stranger
I am a stranger
I am a stranger
I am a stranger

Video description:

An animated video starts with the words “Between the early 1800s and 1996 over 150,000 Indigenous children were systematically taken from their families. They were sent away to residential schools run by church organizations and funded by the Canadian government. The children were forbidden to speak their language and practice their culture – they were forced to assimilate into ‘white Canada’. This is the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack. In 1966 he ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, and tried to walk home to Ogoki Post – 600 kilometres away.”

A boy is walking down a set of train tracks looking sad and cold. The scene is entirely a blue/grey. The scene switches to the same boy fishing and looking happy and warm, in a coloured scene. He walks up to a man, woman and baby – his family – around a fire outside of a house, and the man smiles at him affectionately. Back on the tracks, the boy remembers when he and other boys are getting their hair cut by a man dressed in black. The boys all go to bed in a room together. The boy lies awake in his bed, thinking. The scene switches back to the boy along the tracks, and he is thinking about both his family and the place with the other boys.

In 2018, classically trained singer and musicologist Jeremy Dutcher won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. The album is entirely in the Wolastoqey language, which is spoken in Dutcher’s Tobique First Nation community in New Brunswick. There are currently fewer than 100 fluent speakers of the language. Under the apprenticeship of Elder Maggie Paul, Dutcher listened to and transcribed century-old wax cylinder recordings of traditional songs from his community. He then blended the voices of his ancestors with his own compositions to create new songs that harmonize with the past. With this album, Dutcher is introducing the Wolastoqey language and songs to people across Canada, while preserving and celebrating his language and culture.

Jeremy Dutcher performs during the Polaris Music Prize gala in Toronto on September 17, 2018.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Tijana Martin

Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. Are you ready to hear the truths that need to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?

Jeremy Dutcher

The intersections between music and human rights are abundant, thanks to passionate artists who are dedicated to effecting positive change. Canadian musicians have inspired legions of fans to take action on human rights issues, and their influence is only growing. Today, music can be shared rapidly and across vast distances, allowing artists to encourage more and more people to “face the music” about matters of great importance.

Ask yourself:

How can music promote human rights?

Has music ever changed your point of view? How?

What songs inspire you to make a difference?

Further Readings

  • Cockburn, Bruce. Rumours of Glory. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
  • Peddie, Ian. Popular Music and Human Rights Volume 1: British and American Music. Surrey, England and Burlington Vermont: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Peddie, Ian. Popular Music and Human Rights Volume 2: World Music. Surrey, England and Burlington Vermont: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Rhindress, Charlie. I’m Not What I Seem: The many stories of Rita MacNeil’s Life. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Formac Publishing Company, 2016.
  • Rosenthal, Robert and Richard Flacks. Playing for Change: Musicians in the Service of Social Movements. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012.
  • Schwartz, Ellen. Born a Woman: Seven Canadian Women Singer-Songwriters. Winlaw, B.C.: Polestar Press, 1988.
  • Sentha, Christabelle and Steve Hewitt. Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.
  • Warner, Andrea. We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ‘90s and Changed Canadian Music. Eternal Cavalier Press, 2015.

1Christabelle Sentha and Steve Hewitt, Just watch us: RCMP surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in cold war Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018, 138.

2Bruce Cockburn, Rumours of glory. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014, 225–226.