at it and to it

Last summer, having already journeyed through 10 provinces and one territory in an effort to get to know this land that much better, we ventured to the forbidden land that is northern Ontario. Or, as we quickly learned, northeastern Ontario.

It was already proving to be the region’s annus horribilus, forest fires having recently threatened many communities and the picturesque city of Elliot Lake still reeling from a tragedy from which its people may never fully recover. Shortly after our trip, storms would wash out parts of the TransCanada that is the lifeline of some towns; the provincial government’s closure of the Ontario Northland Railway would further isolate others.

It was a good time to venture north, if only to provide much needed moral and tourism support for a battered region.

It’s difficult to define where northeastern Ontario begins, but I’ll stump for Mattawa, just east of North Bay. For it’s in Mattawa that the attention-getting oversized objects that are a talking-point in the area begin. A giant goose. A giant flying saucer. A big nickel. All are popular roadside attractions in Ontario’s northland. And it begins in Mattawa with a towering figure by the name of Mufferaw Joe.

Which, of course, brings me to the passing of an equally towering figure in Canadian society: Clarence Thomas Connors. Stompin’ Tom.

The man’s songs and story came to mind many times during that weeklong exploration of the other Ontario. Well, another Ontario. We rode the Algoma Central. We drove through Little Wawa (stopping, of course, at the aforementioned goose). And yes, we spent a Saturday night in Sudbury. Sadly, a visit to Timmins no longer allowed for an evening at the Maple Leaf Hotel, the venue where the legend of Stompin’ Tom Connors truly begins. The tavern, like so many attractions in northeastern Ontario, is no longer in operation. Indeed, the sparsely-populated region was suffering long before the setbacks of 2012. At least it and its people will always have the songs Stompin’ Tom wrote for and about them.

As will each of those 10 provinces we’ve experienced. Plus territories. Was it corny to have Bud the Spud blaring from the car stereo as we drove through the beauteous Prince Edward Island countryside towards the province’s Potato Museum? You bet. But it had to be done. Just as we had to listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy during those cross-country treks. Lightfoot, after all, had dared to write songs of his homeland when it was far from fashionable to do so. In many ways, it’s still unfashionable.

It was never so to Stompin’ Tom. And I’d wager the Rheostatics and Weakerthans and Tragically Hips that have proudly sung of this land recognize the debt they owe to the man whose 1967 debut album’s liner notes promised, “This fellow Tom Connors will take you on his own Canadian trip without you having to leave your record player.” As a recording artist, that was Connors’ mission. As a performer, he determinedly walked the walk for five decades, playing communities from coast to coast and singing of his experiences. Hokey? Over the top? Sure. But, like listening to Bud the Spud while on PEI, sometimes hokey and over the top is called for.

Particularly when delivered with the utter sincerity that guided each of Stompin’ Tom’s tributes to a country he loved. That includes his condemnation of the Juno awards’ embrace of Canadians no longer living and working in Canada. The man had a point, and it will be interesting to see how the Junos deal with his passing. If they want to truly pay tribute to Stompin’ Tom, they will refrain from mentioning him. Connors’ reach extended not to self-congratulatory ceremonies, but to tirelessly touring and penning song after song about Canada. Direct marketing, if you will. Not a bad gig, though few if any had considered it prior to the artist who sang the praises of hockey and of heroes who’d otherwise remain unknown. Like Big Joe Mufferaw.

The tributes are already flowing in, as well they should. Many will, if truth be told, be delivered with a touch of irony in their appreciation for the gimmicky country singer with his cowboy hat and stomping board. That is unfortunate, for while Connors was not averse to sprinkling his songs with humour, he could not have been more serious about telling our story. Our stories. His passing is a great loss. Who will tell those smalltown Canadian stories now? Thanks to the path blazed by Stompin’ Tom, others have tried and will continue to do so. But a sizable chasm has this week opened in our cultural landscape, and it’s unlikely to be filled.

Certainly, we are unlikely to see another Stompin’ Tom. Or, as Jury Krytiuk stated on the back cover of Stompin’ Tom Connors Meets Big Joe Mufferaw: “For years he’s been fighting his own little war in the Canadian entertainment business… He wanted to prove that a Canadian didn’t have to depend on songs out of Nashville or the other major American music centres in order to succeed but that he could make it with Canadian songs.”

He succeeded. On his own terms. And in so doing, set an example for others to follow. Long may they continue to do so. For Canadians. And for T.C. Connors.

Thanks, Tom. Heave hi ho, you were in your way the best man in Canada.

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