Stompin’ Tom Connors did it.
In 1972 Stompin’ Tom refused to play at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) after learning that he was getting paid $2,500 for a two hour show, while Charlie Pride was being paid $35,000 to play just six songs. At the time Connors had won Junos three years in a row for top country singer and Charlie Pride had only received one American award. Connors told the CNE directors that they needed to book at least 60% Canadian acts (and pay them proportionately to American ones) before he would play for them. The CNE was hiring 95% Canadian talent and paying them 5% of the budget.
Then came the Junos. In 1978 Stompin’ Tom Connors packed up his then six Juno awards and shipped them back to the awards committee. He did this because of the “Border Jumpers”. The Canadians who live in the US, work in the American scene, write about American places and culture, and are celebrated by the Canadian Junos Awards. It can be argued that the Junos invite the “Border Jumpers” back for more publicity. Publicity is not what Tom was after, as he canceled a year of shows after returning his award to prove that he hadn’t done it for record sales or self-promotion.
Tom got crankier with age. In 1993 he declined induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Well, that’s what you’ll read in the news. The truth is, he told them, “to stuff it up their asses”. Best of all, before Tom passed away in 2013 at the age of 77, he left instructions that the Junos were not welcome to celebrate his life at the next awards ceremony. Talk about planning ahead.
There is another Canadian who has given back an award because of border jumping: Aaron James Sorenson. Sorenson won the Alberta Media Production Industries Association Rosie Award for his 2004 film ” Hank Williams First Nation”. This film has Canadian (mostly First Nations) actors, content, music and was filmed in northern Alberta. It’s a great film. It even inspired a TV series on APTN. Why did Sorenson return his award? Because Canadian tax money, in the form of grants, is going to Hollywood productions. Meanwhile, a government-funded 22.8 million film studio is being built in Calgary to encourage American film production with the argument that enticing Hollywood film productions in Alberta will stimulate the economy. Sounds like the same rational that has enabled Canadian oil sands to be mostly owned by Americans. According to Sorenson, what happens is that educated and talented Canadians “end up packing cables” for American filmmakers rather than making their own films.
Even Sorenson went to work in the American film industry. But when he came back to his home in Dixonville, Alberta, he was reminded that Canadians have really great stories to tell. “Taxpayers and politicians are being duped into thinking they are supporting Alberta culture when really what they are doing is giving a direct grant to Hollywood productions so that we can solidify our position as a backlot for a foreign country and never develop our own film culture. Shame on Calgary Economic Development and all who know better who are supporting and promoting this robbery of Alberta taxpayers and Alberta storytellers. Stop giving our arts money to Hollywood. Now.”
This reminds me of the Canadian pastime of naming famous Americans who are actually Canadians. Stompin’ Tom was onto the border jumping musicians. All of the best American comedians are actually Canadians. But what about Canadian landscapes? “Brokeback Mountain”, “Legends of the Fall”, and “Unforgiven” were all filmed in our backyard in Alberta, but the gorgeous landscape shots are presented as American places. What does this do to our own sense of place and home? Places and their names are important threads in cultural identity. Ask the First Nations who had all of their places renamed by colonizers. Canadians shouldn’t be embarrassed to use Canadian place names in their stories, songs, books, and films. Thanks to Stompin’ Tom we can all sing about Sudbury and Tillsonburg. Let’s call Kananaskis, Kananaskis in our films.
Sorenson has decided to do something about all of this. He is developing a Canadian content on-demand internet streaming website called Mooseflix. It will have some Canadian classics and will release new Canadian productions “that don’t stink!”. In the meantime I will continue to be entertained by “This Hour has 22 Minutes“, “Trailer Park Boys”, and Tim Hus please and thank-you very much.