I’ve been living in the UK for over ten years now, and twice a year I come home to visit The Mom and my siblings. These visits are important to me for many reasons, not the least of which is for what I refer to as my Canadian re-programming. In the same way you might update your software, I like to make sure my sense Canadian-ness is current.
By returning home twice a year, my Canadian accent (something I was never able to hear before moving away) strengthens, and I feel reconnected to home, but this summer that need to reconnect held more weight somehow, it had a greater sense of urgency and importance. This time, my visit included more than the tiny patch of southwestern Ontario where I’m from, it included the entire country and several decades of musical history.
It was that night in Toronto. It was the 100th Meridian, and the Paris of the Prairies.
Along with most Canadians, and even The Mom, on the night of August 20, I watched the Hip’s last concert in Kingston. And like most Canadians, I wasn’t in Kingston when Mr Downie took the stage, resplendent in a silver suit, shiny as the giant nickel in Sudbury. I wasn’t at the cottage, or at a bar, or a backyard surrounded by friends and family. I was on my own at Pearson Airport. I was on the last flight out to London Heathrow.
Like a lot of us, I’d tried and failed to get tickets to one of the concerts. So I was delighted when the CBC announced that they’d be showing the last concert live, but then I ran into a bit of a challenge: as I was flying out the same night as the last show, tuning in was going to be a bit tricky. I Tweeted Pearson and they replied almost immediately: Hi Gillian, they wrote. We are going to have it in certain locations, stay tuned for more details. My last day was taken up squeezing in the last bit of summer and I didn’t stay tuned, so when I arrived at Pearson (early, so I could clear security in good time to find a seat and get a beer) I didn’t know where those locations were.
So I improvised: I plugged my headphones into one of the iPads they’ve got now, the ones you have to use to order drinks and food, the ones that seem to flummox most folk. And I tuned into the CBC’s broadcast. Tellingly, the iPad interrupted the show every ten or fifteen minutes, asking if I needed more time.
I have to say, it wasn’t quite how I’d pictured it: I’d imagined that I’d find a group of fellow Canadians, all keen on watching, on being part of something historic, of something important. That we’d stand together and sing along with the Hip, with Mr Downie, arms around each other, the true north strong and free.
In the end, it was just me, the iPad, and the server who checked in on me from time to time (usually when I was wiping away a few tears). At first, I felt let down. I wanted to connect with people, to share the experience, to celebrate and lament together. And though I was by myself in the bar, hooked up to a screen, and plugged into headphones, I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt deeply connected to my country and my fellow Canadians. That connection was strengthened and highlighted when, the next day, back in the UK, I scrolled through my social media feeds, and read everyone else’s stories of where they were on that fateful night, what they did and how they felt.
I read about people up at the cottage, on a dock, listening to the show over a crackly radio tuned, watching the show on an old cell phone; about people in London, UK, holed up for a lock in at a pub in Tower Hill; about a viewing party in the Cayman Islands where they feasted on ketchup chips and Nanaimo bars. I read about how the CBC bet on a winner, cancelled all Olympic coverage and played the whole thing, commercial-free. And it was then that I realised that we were all in the same place that night. We were all in Kingston.
People had been sending word out in the days before the show, telling the rest of the world that Canada would be closed on Saturday night. And as I watched the band play their hearts out, as I watched Mr Downie unabashedly let his emotions show through, I was grateful to have been part of it all, for those three and a half hours that connected us all.