Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year, so it was only fitting that the annual celebration of Canadian music, the Juno Awards, took place in the nation’s capital, Ottawa — on land several winners reminded us is unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the house for Sunday’s (April 2) televised broadcast from the sold out, 13,000-capacity Canadian Tire Centre.
It could’t get any more Canadian than that, even if they had handed out BeaverTails (look it up). Except it did.
Trudeau even appeared in an opening pre-recorded skit with co-hosts Bryan Adams and comedian Russell Peters in a bit that ended with a request from the PM — echoed by Peters and likely in the minds of many watching — for the singer to play his enduring hit from 1984, “Summer of 69.” Would he honor the PM’s request?
While relative newcomers The Weeknd, Drake, Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara are dominating the charts worldwide, it was two Canadian legends that were deeply honored in the show. Voting for all but the Fan Choice category is done by members of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
The country’s quintessential singer and lyrical poet, Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip — who last May revealed he had terminal brain cancer — pulled in the most wins over the two-night ceremonies. He took two categories on Sunday’s televised broadcast, and the other three at the private gala dinner on Saturday night, bringing his total to five combined for his band and solo work.
And another Canadian poet — elegant wordsmith and revered songwriter Leonard Cohen, who passed away in November at age 82 — was bestowed album of the year for You Want It Darker, beating out Drake, The Weeknd, Celine Dion and Mendes. He was also declared artist of the year at the gala, over Drake, Cara, Mendes and The Weeknd.
Newcomers got some love too on Sunday night: Cara won pop album of the year for Know-It-All; Ruth B won for breakthrough artist and country album of the year went to Jess Moskaluke for Kiss Me Quiet.
Juno Fan Choice — a whopping category that included Alessia Cara, Belly, Drake, Hedley, Justin Bieber, Ruth B, Shawn Mendes, the Strumbellas, the Weeknd and Tory Lanez — was announced at the end of the night after the fan votes (which began in early February) were calculated near the end of the show. The 18-year-old Mendes topped them all.
Only seven awards (the majority were doled out Saturday) and a special achievement honor were given out on-air during the two-and-a-half-hour show. Unlike nearly very other major awards show, the In Memoriam tribute to those who had spent a lifetime in music (including Cohen and many lesser-known names) is shamefully untelevised at the Junos, in order to focus on ever-more live performances. This year, they came from Adams, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Sarah McLachlan, Feist (covering Cohen); Mendes, Billy Talent, A Tribe Called Red, July Talk, Ruth B, Dallas Smith, Arkells, Strumbellas and Cara.
When Cohen’s name was called for album of the year for You Want It Darker (released three weeks before his death), his 44-year-old son, Adam — an accomplished singer-songwriter himself who co-produced the album — went on stage with his 10-year-old son Cassius to accept the award. “My father always said that he saw a Juno in my future — of course, it was his,” he quipped (Adam was nominated in 2015).
Feist was chosen to pay tribute to Cohen, and did so beautifully with her rendition of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” along with two backup singers. She was introduced by Trudeau and his wife, Sophie. The Prime Minister called Cohen, a fellow Montrealer, “one of the greatest artists Canada has ever produced.”
The musician was friends with Justin’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau — perhaps Canada’s most famous Prime Minister, who also appeared as a Juno presenter a few times while in office — and was “an honorary pallbearer,” he said, at his dad’s funeral in 2000. “I remember a gathering the night before the funeral…That was the night I learned Leonard, a great man — but not a big hugger,” Justin said.
When Downie was given the coveted songwriter of the year award for his solo album, Secret Path, the awards showed a filmed thank you from the singer-songwriter, and the message was as poetic and poignant as we’ve come to expect from him.
“Thank you for stepping into the wind, for following the sound you’ve been hearing your entire life, for looking to see what has been bothering you a little bit, for recognizing that we’re not completely Canada yet,” he said. “For seeing we have friends, our fellow countrymen and women, who are in big trouble, for recognizing our friends who were here before us, at least for thousands of years.
“First Nations have many, many stories like this one,” he continued, in reference to the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school in the winter time, and who provided the inspiration for his Secret Path project. “My dream would be that this record with Jeff Lemire’s drawings might help people, might give teachers something to help teach our young ones.”
When The Tragically Hip won group of the year, Downie’s bandmates of more than 30 years, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, were on hand to accept it. “It was about 26 years ago that we stood on a Juno stage for the first time,” noted Baker, before thanking the people who have worked with them for many years. “They’re the group of the year every year.”
When it was Langlois’ turn, the Juno producers, more concerned with cutting to commercial than giving this venerable band adequate time, started playing him off. “We played here seven months ago on a very special night,” he said, of the stop on The Tragically Hip’s emotional farewell tour. “I want to acknowledge that,”
“Go to commercial, go ahead — this is my arena, not yours,” he said, continuing to thank people. And in a the ultimate insult to a band that means so much to Canadians, just as Langlois said Downie’s name, they cut him off. It was likely a bigger gaff to Canadians than the infamous La La Land mix up was to Oscar viewers.
Another Canadian legend, Sarah McLachlan, who has sold more than 30 million albums, received the Juno’s highest honor: an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Adams did the honors, and Bill Clinton surprisingly kicked off the congratulatory tribute video, which also included props from Diana Krall, Josh Groban, James Taylor and Tegan and Sara.
“Wow, that was really beautiful,” McLachlan commented. “This is a great privilege and I’m so humbled and honored to be in such amazing company. I have the best job in the world, and I have so much to be thankful for. Music is my church.”
The singer-songwriter also capped the night with a song, before a surprise jam broke out of the Adams classic “Summer of 69,” featuring members of Billy Talent, Alessia Cara, Whitehorse and Arkells.