River of Tears

I would like to share a few things about the reasoning behind rereleasing my song, “River of Tears,” as a fundraising single, with proceeds to be directed to the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre.

This song appeared on my 2021 release with American musician Matt Borghi, “Lord Introvert.” The song is something of an outlier on the album, being the only “issue-based” one amongst a number of introspective songs. I wrote this song after reading books and articles on systemic (and overtly expressed) racism against Indigenous people in Northern Ontario, and the city of Thunder Bay, specifically. Frankly, since it’s been in the news again quite recently, this issue is clearly nowhere near being solved in that city.

In particular, a number of unsolved deaths, as well as a vicious attack on an Indigenous woman named Barbara Kentner, horrified me.

I suggest the reading of Tanya Talaga’s award-winning book “Seven Fallen Feathers”, but this Maclean’s magazine article also supplies background to the specifics mentioned in the song

These sorts of scenarios are by no means unusual in Canadian cities, large and small; they represent ongoing oppression and lack of respect for the human rights of Indigenous peoples. 

Now, as a highly educated Canadian who works in the book publishing industry as an editor, I think it would be fair to say my knowledge of the background and continuing tragedy of Canadian settlers’ relationship with the original Indigenous inhabitants of these lands is better than most. But when you are trying to completely change how groups of people view and treat each other, there is always more to be learned, and I continue to educate myself as best I can. The fact that I was aware of the horror of residential schools didn’t blunt the impact of my shock upon hearing about the discovery of mass graves of children (and more are being discovered regularly). The job of an ally is to listen and offer whatever support is wanted and needed.

I personally am a firm believer that ally-ship is important, as long as an ally understands their place. Traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups need to be in charge of and leading their own destinies, but support is important for everyone, especially if we are to emerge from a period of change with a positive society. So, socially conscious white Canadian musicians have occasionally attempted to show their support through their art; prominent examples include songs by Bruce Cockburn and Blue Rodeo. Their efforts may come across as awkward at times, but the intent is good. And of course there’s Midnight Oil’s landmark “Diesel and Dust” and their work with Aboriginal musicians. 

When inspired to write such a song in 2021, there were new considerations. We’re now very aware of the pitfalls of “speaking for” another group of people, and of appopriation. In writing this song and agonizing over the lyrics, my goal was to clearly say: this is very specifically a song by a settler who has come to understand that the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous peoples was a cheat from the start; that the hundreds of years afterward have been one long, creeping robbery, genocide, and oppression; that erasure of an entire continent’s Indigenous ethnic groups and their cultures was an explicit aim of settlement; that the generational trauma inflicted by European settlers means that the burden of establishing trust lies 100% on Canadians, not Indigenous people; and that if we can fully understand these realities, perhaps a way forward can be found as equal, sovereign groups. 

As I said, I continue to learn. As I do about other crucial issues of our time, whether it be climate change or human rights. And these topics will always enter my songwriting.

Anyway, I have felt that this song, given how important it is to me, was somewhat buried on the album, and also it’s not doing any palpaple GOOD just sitting out there. So I had the idea of releasing it as a single, and collecting money to donate to an appropriate place. I selected the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre, which does great work.

As a resident of Northern Ontario myself, it’s a way for me to try to use what little skills as a musician I’ve developed to help out.

I should emphasize that there’s nothing official about this, and the song is not endorsed, officially or otherwise, by any Indigenous organization. It’s just a small thing I did to express my solidarity with others that share this land.

I also need to emphasize that any piece of art that mentions trauma and death, citing real cases, can be triggering to some listeners or viewers. The last thing I would want would be for a song I wrote to do that to someone, so listeners should take that under advisement. Having said that, sometimes the strongest words need to be used to make a point, so I do not regret writing this song.

You can kick in as little as a dollar for the song on Bandcamp.

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