Remembering Some Weird Canadian Pop Hits from the Last 20 Years

While Canada exports a ton of music to the world, there are some songs and acts that for whatever reason, stay within our borders. The Ringer takes a look at some of the weirder hits we’ve kept to ourselves. This is a good study in the peculiarities that the Cancon rules sometimes bequeaths us.

[F]or every killer jam we’ve bequeathed to you over the years, there are at least a dozen more we’ve kept for ourselves. The Canadian music you know — your Shanias, your Avrils, your Weeknds — represents just the very tip of a floating 150-foot iceberg. If you’ve ever driven north of the border, turned on local radio, and wondered what all those strange, unrecognizable songs were alongside the standard Top-40 schlock, allow me to enlighten you: it was CanCon. That’s how we Canucks refer to Canadian content, the homegrown tunes foisted upon our channels as part of a government initiative to protect and promote our apparently fragile cultural identity.

In 1968, fearful of an onslaught of American and British artists dominating the airwaves, Canada introduced a new Broadcasting Act, which required radio stations to devote at least 25 percent of their popular music programming to domestic works. At some point in the ’80s, the minimum was raised to 30 percent, and it was bumped up again in 1999 to 35 percent,where it still stands today. The government determines a song’s Canadian-ness by using something called — and I really wish I were joking here — the MAPL system. No, seriously. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to qualify as CanCon, “a musical selection must generally fulfill at least two of the following conditions”:

Read on for that explanation and the stories of acts like b4-4, Prozzak, The Moffats, Spirit of the West and more.

Then we have this from the Toronto Star which highlights some Canadian hits that never made it out of the country because of their, well, Canadian-ness.

What makes a great Canadian pop song?

That’s the question pundits were wrestling with as they prepared to roll out their definitive Top 150 song lists to commemorate Canada’s sesquicentennial.

As online debates teetered between Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Stompin’ Tom’s “Hockey Song,” Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon” and 147 others, it’s worth noting that with few exceptions, most tunes championed by the Canadian public were not hits across the border.

“What about ‘Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon’ by the Guess Who?” suggested a colleague when I pointed out the discrepancy. “Those guys were huge.”

They were huge with “American Woman,” a No. 1 Billboard smash that has roots at a Waterloo curling arena where the band improvised the song during a 1969 concert break.

But that — depending on who you believe — was a song about the band’s preference for demure Canadian women (over their crass American counterparts) or an anti-war tract that takes direct aim at the Statue of Liberty.

On the other hand, it wasn’t called “Canadian Woman,” which would have been a one-way ticket to the delete bin.

Keep reading. This is a fun thing to discuss.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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