There was a haunting afoot at the 2018 Juno Awards, and rightly so.
Although Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie left this world for good last
Downie, who died of brain cancer on Oct. 17 of last year at the age of 53, added a deserved Artist of the Year title last night to the two awards with which he’d been posthumously honoured at the pre-broadcast Juno gala dinner on Saturday — an Album of the Year award for his moving double-LP solo farewell, Introduce Yerself, and a Songwriter of the Year nod split with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, who helped the ailing singer, songwriter and poet see the
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Not to give a white man too much credit he wouldn’t have wanted at all if he was still around, but Downie’s dying-days crusade to draw attention to Canada’s shameful treatment of its Indigenous, Inuit and Métis peoples was undoubtedly a big reason the CBC saw fit to give the cultures who originally “settled” this country a larger-than-usual presence on Sunday’s broadcast.
Drew took the stage with Pearl Wenjack, one of the sisters of Chanie Wenjack — the 12-year-old Ojibwe boy immortalized in Downie’s 2016 concept album Secret Path who died of exposure while fleeing a residential school in Kenora for his home in Ogoki Post 600 kilometres away in 1966 clad in nothing but a windbreaker — to introduce an understated, quietly shattering tribute to their departed friend by Kingston singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer doing “Introduce Yerself” and City and Colour’s Dallas Green “Bobcaygeon” midway through the broadcast with accompaniment from Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn. And when his brothers Mike and Patrick Downie took the podium to accept on his behalf at the pre-broadcast Juno gala and dinner at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Saturday evening, they made sure Gord still shared the spotlight with the cause for which he died fighting.
“There’s a ribbon of Indigeneity running right down the middle of our flag,” Mike said on Saturday. “This country’s changing, and it’s changing for the better.”
The Barenaked Ladies reunited for their induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, ending the night with a rendition of “If I Had a Million Dollars.” (DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press)
Elsewhere, four-time 2018 nominees Arcade Fire opened the broadcast with an acoustified rendition of “Everything Now” that added Indigenous drummers to the lineup. Iqaluit folk-rockers brought a healthy complement of fellow Nunavut performers — Riit, Josh Qaumariaq the Trade-Offs, throat singer Avery Keenainak and James Ungalaq of Igloolik cult legends Northern Haze — to perform an ensemble rendition of “Ukiuq” in the Inuit native tongue of Inuktitut a few minutes later. Ottawa electronic trio-turned-duo A Tribe Called Red, who blend Indigenous sounds with thick-trunked techno and hip-hop attitude, took Group of the Year over the Fire, Alvvays and Broken Social Scene (and Hedley, technically, but that band abruptly disappeared from the list and the performance schedule when numerous allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced shortly after the nominations were announced). Native-Canadian trailblazer and Indigenous Album of the Year winner (for last year’s Medicine Songs) Buffy Sainte-Marie joined Montreal electro-pop starlet Grimes onstage for a shout-out all the women who continually put up with a lot of nonsense from the boys club that is the global music industry.
On Sunday, too, while collecting the Artist of the Year trophy for their brother, Mike and Patrick Downie again reiterated the same cries for reconciliation and a long-overdue upgrade in colonial Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous population that Gord aimed directly at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the stage during the Tragically Hip’s final performance in Kingston in August of 2016.
“If we’ve learned anything from Gord, it was the value of taking care of each other,” said Patrick.
“He wanted a country that was equitable and inclusive,” added brother Mike, “and right now we have an incredible opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to really come together and create a new country and a new Canada … Gord would really like.”
Toronto jazz songstress Diana Krall was tied with Downie heading into last night’s broadcast, although oblique Toronto art-rockers Do Make Say Think were tangentially also tied for the lead thanks to a win in the Instrumental Album of the Year category for Stubborn Persistent Illusions and a bonus statuette for Album Artwork of the Year for the same LP.
Krall earned two trophies for her 2017 album Turn Up the Quiet, one for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year and another, the Jack Robertson Producer of the Year award, shared with co-producer Tommy Lipuma for their collaboration behind the boards.
The coveted Album of the Year award eventually went to the Arcade Fire’s Everything Now over Shania Twain’s NOW, Ruth B’s Safe Haven, Johnny Reid’s Revival and Michael Bublé’s Nobody But Me. The latter had seemed something of a shoe-in since Bublé won for a Christmas album in 2012 and tends to sell more than the average Canadian and the Junos used to skew towards “units moved” in their Album of the Year selections, but in the end taste and common sense won out and the legitimate best album on that shortlist won. Even if the critical consensus on Everything Now was uncharacteristically (and excessively, to be honest) negative upon the album’s delivery last year — a fact that Texas-born frontman Win Butler appeared to tacitly acknowledge as he and his bandmates accepted the award.
Host Michael Bublé on stage at the Juno Awards in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press)
“I just hope that we can all rise above negativity in our lives and just do what we believe in,” said Butler. “Speak your truth and don’t be afraid to just do whatever the hell you want.”
Toronto, as usual, was all over the Juno map, with hipster-approvable wins for the Beaches (Breakthrough Group of the Year), Alvvays (Alternative Album of the Year), Lights (Pop Album of the Year), Tory Lanez (Rap Recording of the Year), Daniel Caesar (R&B/Soul Recording of the Year) and four-time nominee Jessie Reyez (Breakthrough Artist of the Year) once the night had run down.
“Change is coming,” Buffy Sainte-Marie said in a speech delivered to the stage on behalf of women working against the boys in the music industry at one point in the evening. But change was also evident in the fact that the winners list at the Junos this year didn’t overwhelmingly recognize the usual mainstream suspects, but also a host of indie performers doing things their own way outside of the industry model. When Jasmyn Burke of Toronto art-punk weirdos Weaves can take the stage with federal Minister of Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to present an award, you know something’s changed at the Junos from the days when it was all Anne Murray, all the time.
Even the Barenaked Ladies, who reunited with original co-frontman Steven Page for a “one-off” performance of “If I Had a Million Dollars” at the end of the broadcast, began as a busker act selling DIY cassettes.
If the changes to come haven’t quite happened the way they should yet, at least the Juno Awards seemed this year to at least be aware they’re happening.
Oh, and in other news, this year’s Juno host, Michael Bublé, and his wife, Luisana Lopilato, are collectively pregnant with their third child. Bublé announced that on the broadcast and landed a lot of international headlines for it, but his win in the Adult Contemporary Album of the Year category for Nobody But Me had more to do with actual Canadian music.
With files from The Canadian Press