Police week music

A man sits at Queen and John Sts. in front front of a line of riot police during G20 protests in Toronto on June 26, 2010. (Image: Steve Russell, Toronto Star)

When I discovered that there is a National Police Week that runs from May 7 through 15 in Canada, I was delighted. There are so many songs that deal with the bad behavior of the police over many years, and this gives me the opportunity to share a few. It is probable that the first song about the unjust behavior of the police was written within days, if not hours, of the establishment of the first police force.

These days there are at least three current ‘issues’ involving the police in Canada’s three largest cities. In Montreal we can witness the police beating up students every evening on our televisions. In Toronto there is still fallout from the over-muscular activities of the police during the G-20 protests a year ago, and in Vancouver the hearings into the murder of dozens of women by Robert Pickton highlight the apparent indifference of the police to the missing women, who were generally poor, addicted, aboriginal sex workers. These events will all produce songs in their own time.

To set the context and review some historical songs dealing with the police and their actions I have assembled a few choice creations. Going back to the First World War we can remember Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, a leader of British Columbia coal miners and a vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour, shot while evading the draft, by Dominion Police (forerunner of the RCMP) constable Dan Campbell near Cumberland on Vancouver Island in July of 1918.

Goodwin had been given an exemption for health reasons but this was revoked after he led a strike. Conscription was seen as a death sentence and Goodwin had gone into hiding. His death precipitated the first general strike in Vancouver on August 2. If you think Ginger is forgotten, when the NDP was elected in the 90s the stretch of highway near Cumberland was named after Goodwin. The moment the Liberals came to power, the signs came down. Here is a song about Goodwin, sung by its author, Grant Olsen:

Thirteen years later, on September 29, 1931 the RCMP gunned down three striking miners and wounded several dozen more in Estevan, Saskatchewan during the Bienfait strike. John Weir, a Ukrainian-Canadian Communist organizer who was there, wrote a song about it using a pseudonym (he had a healthy desire to live a long life). After languishing in obscurity, the song was recorded by The Travelers on their Centennial labour songs LP. That song was reworked and sung a few years ago by Toronto actor Peter Kastner who dedicated it to American singer and activist Anne Feeney.

Jumping ahead to more recent times, the fine song, “Mr. Metro” released in 1990 by Toronto rapper/hip hop artist Devon Martin looked at the relationship between the entire Afro-Canadian community and Toronto’s ‘finest’. This was when the term, ‘DWB’ (Driving While Black) was coined by Torontonians of colour to describe the apparent crime they committed for simply owning a vehicle and driving it. The number of times they would be stopped, questioned and searched while driving from point A to point B seemed based on prejudice. The music video for “Mr. Metro” garnered Devon a MuchMusic Award for Best R&B video in 1990. He went on to win a Juno Award for Best Rap Recording in 1993.

Moving west, there is the case of Neil Stonechild, one of a number of aboriginal men taken for a “starlight tour” by the Saskatoon police and, it is alleged, left to die of exposure on the edge of town. Last seen by a friend in the back of a police cruiser, his body was found in late November of 1990. Kris Demeanor, a brilliant songwriter and spoken word artist, recently named poet laureate of Calgary, wrote a song about Neil Stonechild and his death called “One Shoe”. Here is Kris singing his song:

“Dalloy Politsey” is an early twentieth century Yiddish revolutionary song whose title translates to “Down with the Police.” Here is a classic version of the song with great images from the Russian Revolution:

Vancouver neo-Klezmer singer/songwriter Geoff Berner has updated “Dalloy Politsey” for the twenty-first century with a joyous adaptation and modernization of the song. He’s has changed the cry to “F–k The Police” and references the contemporary case and scandal of Ian Bush, a young Houston, BC man, who was arrested for having a beer in his hand and was shot by an RCMP constable a few hours later. It took many months for the police to tell the parents the circumstances of their son’s death. A good summary of all this is on the BC North/ Highway 16 magazine.

So, this Polic Week, sing along to these songs, look for more of them, but most importantly, do a little research on the people and events mentioned here so that you can help create a police force that really does ‘serve and protect’ YOU!

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About Gary Cristall

Gary Cristall was the co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978; from 1994 he spent six years at Canada Council. Since 2000 he has worked as an artist's manager and consultant and teacher of arts administration at Capilano University. He is researching and writing a history of folk music in English Canada. Visit Gary at his website and learn more about his book on the history of folk music in Canada. Photo credit: Brian Nation


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