Monday, March 4, 2013

A Song for the Exiled Rebels: "Un Canadien errant"


So I've been watching Canada: A People's History (which some valiant hero has posted on YouTube here). And it led me to this neat discovery: a song called "Un Canadien errant", which was written after the Rebellions of 1837.

Torontonians remember the rebellions because William Lyon Mackenzie marched an army down Yonge Street. But the rebellion in Québec (Lower Canada back then) was an even bigger deal. The rebels there managed to win a couple of big victories over the British in the early going — making it seem for a brief while as if the idea of overthrowing our colonial overlords in favour of a new, independent, democratic republic wasn't that far-fetched an idea. Their success helped to inspire Mackenzie: he was in contact with the French-Canadian rebel leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and it was when every solider in Toronto was sent to fight in Québec that Mackenzie saw his opportunity.

Neither of the rebellions ended well. Here in T.O., Mackenzie and his rebels were overwhelmed at Montgomery's Tavern. In Québec, the biggest blow came at the Battle of St. Eustache. I've posted a painting of it above. That church in the background is particularly famous — the British trapped the rebels inside and then set fire to it. You can see the desperate men jumping from the windows to their deaths.

At the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa (which I visited back in December), they've actually got part of the door handle from the church on display (just below a reproduction of that very same painting):


And they've got some handcuffs from the 1830s, too:


Many of the rebels were arrested — both in Toronto and in Québec — and would have worn handcuffs like those. Some were hanged. Many more were sent into exile without trial. They were forced to leave their friends and family behind and live in the United States. Or Bermuda. Or Australia. And that's where the song comes in.

"Un Canadien errant" was written by a student at the Séminaire de Nicolet on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1842. It's a lament for those exiled rebels. The lyrics tell the story of a Canadian far from home, in a strange land, who sits beside a stream one sad day. He talks to the water, asking that if it should ever find itself flowing through Canada to tell his friends back home that he still remembers them. Some people even say that's where the Québecois motto "Je me souviens" comes from — it's in the lyrics of the song.

"Un Canadian errant" became an anthem, not just for the Lower Canadian rebels, but for Mackenzie's exiled rebels as well. (In English, it's called "The Wandering Canadian".) There's an Acadian version, too — the British forced them off their lands in the Maritimes during the Great Upheaval in the 1700s. And more recently, it has become a song for any Canadian who finds themselves homesick in some faraway land.

The song has been recorded many many times. There's a version from 1917 here. Nana Mouskouri does it here. Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have a version here. It was even used as the Canadian theme music for the legendary geographic video game Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

But I'll post three versions below. The first is by Ian & Sylvia. They were a famous folk duo in the '60s who got their start in Toronto as part of the Yorkville scene and helped launch a revival of the song. The second is maybe my favourite version of the tune, recorded by Laurena Segura, a teenager in Montreal who just signed her first record contract. (I just interviewed her for The Little Red Umbrella over here.) And finally, there's Leonard Cohen, listening to the song on his balcony in Montreal in the 1980 documentary, The Song of Leonard Cohen.

You can also find the lyrics and chords to "Un Canadien errant" here, so you can learn to play it yourself.

And I've got a much more detailed series of posts about Mackenzie, Papineau and the battle for Canadian democracy here.

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