Music to Write Realmgard to: Northwest Passage

“One warm line through a land so wide and savage.”

Perhaps fittingly for a day where everything is stuck in ice, here’s a song about a naval expedition that famously ended with everybody dying after the boats got stuck in the ice.

I am referring, of course, to the Franklin Expedition, the ill-fated 1845 voyage of the Erebus and Terror through the Arctic to chart a maritime route through the Northwest Passage.

Spoiler: the boats got stuck and everybody died.

Edwin Landseer's painting "Man Proposes, God Disposes."
Edwin Landseer‘s “Man Proposes, God Disposes” — which just about sums it up…
Controversial in its day for its perceived bad taste, said to be haunted in the intervening years.

Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

But, seriously, though, the fate of the Franklin Expedition has endured as one of the great national myths and mysteries in Canadian history, spurred by the fact that evidence for what actually happened was only discovered piecemeal and slowly put together over the next century and change — culminating with the eventual discovery of the wrecks of the Erebus (in 2014) and Terror (in 2016) after a long process involving a combination of the surviving written evidence, the pieces of physical evidence, and generations of Inuit oral tradition about the ships and brief sightings of the surviving sailors attempting to trek over the ice.

All of which is to say, it’s not exactly surprising that there’s a song about it. And the song about the search for the Northwest Passage is, of course, called Northwest Passage.

Now, let me provide some background to the song itself.

To put it into context, if Gordon Lightfoot is the longstanding institution and great icon of Canadian Folk Music, then Stan Rogers is probably the great tragic figure of Canadian Folk Music.

Of course, Stan Rogers isn’t not an icon (at least within Canada), but where Gordon Lightfoot has had a career that has spanned decades and is still going strong, Stan Rogers died in 1983 at the age of 33 — in a way, providing us with another sort of great national myth and enduring mystery of what might have been.

Still, while tragically deprived of the opportunity to become the icon that he might of been, Stan Rogers did nevertheless leave behind a song that has indisputably become an icon and an institution in Canadian culture — the aforementioned Northwest Passage.

In fact, merely calling it an “icon” might actually be underselling it. In addition to being continuously popular even decades after Stan Rogers himself died, Northwest Passage has repeatedly been identified as one of the most beloved and quintessentially Canadian songs — for example, coming in a Number 4 in a vote for Canada Day 2005 to determine the most Canadian song by a Canadian artist.

Perhaps more saliently, Northwest Passage has also been repeatedly either offered up as our unofficial national anthem or suggested as an alternative national anthem.

So, yeah, although he was gone too soon, Stan Rogers clearly left his mark on the Canadian psyche.

And, yeah, Northwest Passage has obvious musical merits.

For example, if you’re a Canadian, you can hear it, can’t you?

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild [but they’re clearly singing “wide”] and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Probably the most famous opening lines in Canadian music; lyrics from Genius.

Still, I think the lyrics are at least a little uncomfortable in 2023…

The categories listed on the Wikipedia article for "Northwest Passage" with 'Colonialism in Popular Culture' and 'Works about the British Empire' underlined.
Reasons why highlighted.
via the Wikipedia article for Northwest Passage.

To help explain my thoughts here, please allow me a bit of a digression.

High school was long ago enough that there were still enough surviving World War II veterans for my school to have a sizeable VE Day party. As part of that, we had to learn how to sing The Maple Leaf Forever.

And even almost 20, ahem, “a couple” years ago — for you see, as far you’re concerned, I’m 25 and always will be — and as a 15-year-old, I was sitting there thinking “Man, this is the British-est, White People-est song I have ever heard and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”

The Maple Leaf Forever was written in 1867 — the year of Confederation; also, the namesake of Ottawa‘s Junior Hockey team — and it shows, essentially reducing Canadian history to a legacy of British imperialism and presenting the British Empire as an unequivocally good thing. No mention of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, no mention of the Quebecois, no mention of immigrant communities, just “Rah, rah, Rule, Britannia! Yay, British Empire!”

And I think my lingering issues with Northwest Passage are largely the same.

Look, I’m not saying Stan Rogers is a bad guy for writing this song. Especially not 40 years ago.

But I do think that, 40 years later, a song that is exclusively a paean to figures who were, to a man, tools of the colonial enterprise doesn’t accurately represent Canada as it actually is in the year 2023.

A river.
Photo by James Wheeler on

And, yeah, fundamentally, it’s a song about wanderlust. And Stan Rogers is likening is own touring across Canada to the journeys of the explorers of the past. And, yeah, all of those explorers were brave and industrious and were the first (white) people to map out the vast swathes of land they were trekking across.

And, yeah, they did face dangers that very often did kill them.

And, yeah, geographically speaking, Canada is wide and savage. But it’s doing a disservice to Canadian history to attribute the one warm line to the British Imperial project — again, it’s completely neglecting the contributions of literally everyone but the British to Canadian history and culture, and of course, the undeniable, resoundingly bad aspects of said Imperial Project.

But, honestly, I’m not sure if we’re ready to have that conversation…

But, like I said — one way or the other — Northwest Passage remains one of the most iconic pieces of Canadian music, period. It may be dated, but it’s still a major piece of Canadiana:

The official Music to Write Realmgard to playlist has been updated to include this latest entry:

And a reminder to catch up on The Treasure of Oake Island:

Follow me here:

Sign-up for my email newsletter here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s