All in the Same CANO

Stephen Henighan

For a brief period the band CANO gave shape to the dream of a bilingual Canadian culture

As a teenager, I listened to different music with different friends. In the Ottawa Valley in the late 197s, only a few of my friends shared my enthusiasm for the Franco-Ontarian band CANO. It was the era of progressive rock: groups reliant on keyboards and synthesizers, and instrumental interludes that spun tunes out far beyond the format of the three-minute pop song. The vinyl album, rather than the single, was the currency of popular music. Lyrics were often cryptic, their correct interpretation the subject of debates that continued late into the night. CANO showed us that progressive rock could illuminate debates about Canada.

Growing into adulthood along the Ontario-Québec border, I knew that I inhabited a country that was on the verge of rupture. The Parti Québécois government of Québec, elected in 1976, was committed to separating the province from Canada. The federal government promoted bilingualism and multiculturalism as bulwarks against both Québec separatism and US cultural domination. The rural borderlands where the country’s two largest provinces met included both francophiles and francophobes. The friends with whom I listened to CANO shared my francophilia. We parsed the group’s lyrics for clues to our national dilemma. CANO stood for Coopérative des artistes du Nouvel-Ontario; the eleven members came from the tough mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. Made up of both francophones and anglophones, with a Ukrainian-Canadian violinist, CANO were heralded by the newspapers as the quintessential Canadian band. The fact that all of the members were white was not seen as an obstacle to this designation. In 1961, less than one per cent of Canadians identified as “non-white”; in 1981, when the census introduced the “visible minority” category, 4.7 per cent of Canadians ticked this box. In a late 197s Canada that was about 96 per cent white, CANO was able to speak for the nation. Though the group had no Indigenous members, it recognized the oppression of these cultures; one song decried how Indigenous symbols had been étouffé (strangled).

Debates over national identity swirled around CANO. “We were there for the music; the journalists were there for the story angle,” guitarist David Burt later recalled. Fixated on these national debates, my friends and I overlooked the extent to which CANO was the product of an arduous campaign to revive the culture of Ontario’s downtrodden francophone communities. The cooperative from which CANO took its name had been founded in 1971. Impelled by intellectuals such as Pierre Bélanger, and the protean figure of Robert Dickson, a southern Ontario anglophone who moved to Sudbury, adopted a francophone identity and eventually won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French poetry, the cultural revival’s activities included the founding of the Éditions Prise de Parole publishing house, and the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario. One of Dickson’s students at bilingual Laurentian University, André Paiement, became the most dynamic creative force of his generation. A prolific playwright while still an undergraduate, Paiement soon became artistic director of the French-language theatre. In 1975 he conceived the idea of a rock band whose concerts would be of theatrical grandeur. With assistance from Dickson in writing lyrics, Paiement and Burt formed CANO. Rachel Paiement, André’s sister, was the lead singer; her intense brother and the rough-voiced transplanted Acadian Marcel Aymar acted as alternate vocalists.

Paiement’s audacity in giving expression to a minority culture through grandiose spectacles clashed with unforgiving realities. The group’s large size made touring expensive, the cooperative formula meant that stars earned the same as roadies. One of CANO’s lyricists, Suzie Beauchemin, died as they were recording their first album, Tous dans l’même bateau (All in the Same Boat). CANO had a conflicted relationship with Québec. They needed the Québec market, and were welcomed by Québécois listeners surprised that Franco-Ontarians could produce such sophisticated music; yet CANO were bound to oppose Québec nationalism which, if successful, would strand them in an English-speaking country. The twelve-minute song “Mon pays,” a riposte to Québécois folk singer Gilles Vigneault’s nationalist anthem of the same title, lamented that “mon pays / ne vivra plus / plus tellement longtemps / Oui, mon pays désuni…” ( my country /will live no longer/ not much longer / Yes, my disunited country…).

Vigneault’s pays was Québec; Paiement’s was Canada—and the world. In “La première fois,” (The First Time), one of his most impassioned compositions, Paiement praises cross-cultural connection and excoriates narrow nationalism: “que je ne suis rien / que je ne puis rien sans toi / Et tout le monde parle de son pays / chacun son petit nombril…” (I am nothing / I can do nothing, without you / And everyone talks about his country / Everyone his own little navel…)

For a brief period CANO held its contradictions in equilibrium, incarnating the dream of a bilingual Canadian culture. The group’s second album, Au nord de notre vie (In the North of our Lives), sold 5, copies, many of them purchased by anglophones. Then disaster struck. In January 1978, at the end of an exhausting concert tour, André Paiement, ill and run ragged by the contradictions of his position, committed suicide. In 1981 violinist Wasyl Kohut died of an aneurysm during a rehearsal. Record executives pushed for shorter songs, English lyrics, more conventional chord progressions. The albums that followed, though they yielded a couple of pop-radio hits that maintained CANO’s visibility, were unremarkable.

CANO thrived on the border between cultures, in spite of the perpetual risk of rejection by one linguistic culture or the other. In the late summer of 1979, as Québec prepared to hold a referendum on independence, I attended a CANO concert within steps of Parliament Hill. “Mon pays,” sung in Rachel Paiement’s soaring voice, had never felt more urgent. Yet the headbangers sitting beside me, impatient for the heavy metal group due to play next, drowned out this anthem of our divisions with shouts of, “Sing in English! Rock and roll!” The next summer I was in a youth hostel in Tadoussac, Québec, the only anglophone backpacker among young francophones who were commiserating with each other over the referendum’s failure to achieve Québec independence. CANO’s “La première fois” came on the radio. André Paiement’s caustic denunciation of ethnic nationalism stung the crowd into silence. “Who could sing something like that?” the woman next to me asked. Few Canadians today dream of the bilingual federalism the group embodied. CANO’s music is remembered mainly in francophone communities in northern Ontario, a source of local pride in a fractured national landscape where each region or ethnicity speaks for itself and no one else.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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