Top 5 Tragically Hip Songs to Teach a Canadian History Class with

As every good Canadian knows, there’s three important ingredients necessary for retaining citizenship in the Great White North:

1) A love for ice hockey
2) A love for snow
3) A love for Tim Horton & his coffee
4) A love for the Tragically Hip

Okay, so that’s 4, but as you notice, math isn’t on the list. And that last ingredient, a love for Gord Downie and the gang in the Tragically Hip, may be what really separates us from our freedom loving friends south of the CAN/AM border. Cause I’ve been there before, and there’s lots of people there that like coffee, snow, and hockey, but have never heard of the song “New Orleans is Sinking” – and New Orleans is in America, for pete’s sake!

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Important Historical Sources

So I thought that in light of this, if I were ever to teach a course on Canadian history, the best and most accessible way to do it would be in Tragically Hip song form.

One of the great things about Tragically Hip songs is how layered they are. A brilliant instructor, seizing upon the opportunities these songs offer, could really make a lecture fun – AND dare-i-say, perhaps even make Canadian history kinda interesting. Here’s my top 5 favourite songs to teach Canadian history with:

#1 “Nautical Disaster”

This song could act as a gateway to Canada’s traditional links to Britain, the role Canada played in WWII, and the brutality of wartime atrocities committed…even by the hands of the Allies.

#2 “Fifty Mission Cap”

Not only could this song tie into a lecture on Canada in wartime just as “Nautical Disaster” would, but it also immerses itself in sport history with the story of Bill Barilko & a time when the Toronto Maple Leafs could win, not to mention Canadian culture AND most importantly: hockey cards.

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#3 “(At the) Hundredth Meridian”

The line that runs through Manitoba, this would be a fantastic start to a lecture of Canada east/west relations. And buffalo. Also, it would be a good way to introduce students to Ry Cooder.

#4 “Wheat Kings”

Holy moly where to start with this one – you’ve got crime, punishment, and an innocent man – Western Canadian culture, and a story that transfixed the entire nation.

#5 “38 Years Old”

Maybe not a song based on a true story, but the song traces life in small town Canada, and what tragedy can do to a community. The tale told in the song could have come from anywhere in the country.

#6 “Fireworks”

This could be the song that brings the whole course together. You’ve got ice hockey, you’ve got the Cold War, and you’ve got an event that anyone alive at the time would remember. If only it mentioned coffee it could be our new national anthem.

So I know there’s 6 songs, but you’ll notice not one of the songs mentions math. There’s heaps more songs that could be added to this list, so feel free to include them below. Also, in the course of my “research” for this post I stumbled upon a great website called: A Museum After Dark: The Myth and Mystery of the Tragically Hip. It’s awesome, and goes into way more depth about songs and the band than I do.

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11 Comments on “Top 5 Tragically Hip Songs to Teach a Canadian History Class with”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    You knew you’d get me with this one, eh. A post after my own heart.

    Fireworks is a must-have, for sure, but good call on Nautical Disaster.

    If you’re going to expand your 5 (6) into 10, there’s definitely more obscure ones …

    -“Born in the Water” is about the problem for official language in Sault Ste. Marie, an Ontario town with a small (but very old) French minority outside of Quebec. Endless possibilities

    -“Looking for a Place to Happen” is a song about colonization and the First Nations. Definitely a good teaching tool, and not just because it names Jacques Cartier.

    -“Three Pistols” works if you’re teaching an Art History bit on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

    You’ll need one more to make ten. I’m sure the Hip Museum can be of help. As you say, it’s a great site.

  2. William GIlgan Says:

    There are three types of people in this world; those who can count and those who can’t.
    I’m pretty sure fiddler’s green is a park south of Hamilton. There may be more than one fiddlers green.

  3. halfsharpmusic Says:

    And Gord’s new song the hard canadian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQc08VXs3Hg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  4. Mel Says:

    I really liked this band when I was over there, mainly for the reasons you have stated. I could learn about Canadian history thru music, what better way to learn? They reminded me of Midnight Oil. I haven’t seen them live so not sure if the lead singer dances as well as Petere Garrett.


  5. This is awesome, but you are totally cutting in on my turf Kafara…well maybe not since I plan on using Pearl Jam’s “Rats” to teach ecological imperialism.

  6. Winston Says:

    Interestingly, the Hip and Midnight Oil once joined forces on a charity single, “Land”. It’s a gem.

  7. sabrinabiot Says:

    Reblogged this on Country Mouse in the Big City.


  8. […] just saw a post on  The Past in Unwritten about the top five Tragically Hip songs to play in a Canadian History […]


  9. […] just one Hip song that tells a story because so many do.  Indeed, in surfing about, I even found this great post from a fellow WordPress blogger about using the Hip’s music to help teach Canadian History.  […]

  10. Christine Heynen Says:

    Here’s some food for thought. As much as I agree with the Cancon (Canadian Content) in the above songs, I think you also need to include “Good Night, Attawapiskat”, and “Now The Struggle Has A Name” (both songs talk about First Nations issues and would fit perfectly into lesson plans about the Reserve system and the Residential Schools–“Good Night Attawapiskat” for the reserve system and “Now The Struggle Has A Name” for the residential schools). I’m not sure if you watched the Tragically Hip’s final concert on August 20, 2016, but Gord Downie took the opportunity to talk about these darker and more painful issues in our country’s past. Downie took Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau to task about his responsibilities and Canadians’ responsibilities in general to our First Nations communities, and how we need to do a lot more to make up for what our ancestors have done to “thank” the First Nations communities for their roles in building our Nation. The Ontario Secondary School Curriculum includes mandatory lessons on the Reserve system and the Residential Schools. I think these lessons are long overdue. I grew up in Ontario and went to High School in the 1990’s and I took both Canadian and American History courses. Neither of my teachers mentioned much of anything about the Residential Schools (the U. S. called the schools “Boarding Schools”, but had the same racist goal). I went on to earn a University degree with History as one of my concentrations. I took a First Nations History course the year I graduated and it was a real breath of fresh air. I was about to go into 11th grade when an OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) officer wrongly shot and killed a First Nations protester at Ipperwash (in the area of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nations, between Sarnia and Grand Bend). Nobody wanted to talk about it at my school, other than to say that “the ‘indians’ were just causing more trouble”. As students, we missed out. My father had a passion for First Nations issues and passed it onto me. And none of my History teachers throughout my school career mentioned anything about History from the First Nations’ perspectives. Because of his activism for First Nations rights, I consider Gord Downie a man after my own heart.


    • Hey Christine! I totally agree with those songs being included! When I wrote this post in early 2011, however, neither of those tunes were out yet. Might be high time for an update!

      And I sure did watch the concert on Saturday night, it was wonderful hey? And I was so happy when Gord spoke about Indigenous issues in Canada. I live in Alberta, but it sounds like we had similar experiences growing up. This province is (finally) changing its curriculum too. After finished my MA in history in 2012, I’ve been a front-line worker in Edmonton’s inner-city, and see the consequences of Canada’s past, and also how people today (similar to your story from 11th grade) are continuing this dark legacy. I really hope things are changing.

      In 2014 I participated in Edmonton’s TRC event as a health support worker for people giving private testimony, and that was hard, but it also gave me a lot of optimism, just like when Gord spoke to Canada and the Prime Minister on Saturday night. Personally, it was awesome to see Gord still teaching Canadians (and the world really), just like he’s done through his lyrics over the years.

      Getting comments like yours gives me even more hope that things are changing for the better. So thanks, and keep up the good work!!!!!


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