Q&A: 'Harperman' singer Tony Turner on his suspension, retirement and accidental activism
Tony Turner, who retired from Environment Canada last week, performed 'Harperman' at three rallies over the weekend
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It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Tony Turner. The federal scientist was suspended from his Environment Canada job eight weeks ago, investigated for writing the ‘Harperman’ protest song. The song took off, garnering more than 680,000 YouTube views and sparking nationwide sing-alongs last month. Last week, Turner retired, making him free to speak publicly. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What do you make of the past couple of months? Did you expect the song to become as big as it was?
I didn’t expect the song to go viral the way it had. I wrote that song way back in March, I played it for the first time at a May Day rally and I thought that was going to be the end of it. I think there were other people who saw a political usefulness that could be made of the song, so we did the video and then we put it on YouTube. I guess my suspension created the big news story that made it go viral.
Why did you decide to write it?
Not unlike a lot of Canadians, I was just unhappy with the prime minister and our leadership in this country. The song-writing contest was to write either a protest song or a song of hope, and I thought well, this is an election year so I’m going to write a protest song. I found the inspiration for it from a social justice newsletter with a dozen things the Harper government has done to undermine democracy, and I added to it.
It was for a song-writing contest? How did you do?
Well, I won. The prize was to play it at this MayDay rally, and I’m playing with all these labour people and I’m standing on stage thinking 'Wow, all of a sudden I’m a labour activist.' I just got thrown on stage to sing the song, and I didn’t really realize the potential of it and how it would resonate with people.
Did you think you would face professional consequences for writing it?
I wrote it and I performed it, but other people promoted it, created the website and organized events like the national sing-along day on Sept. 17. The allegations of the government suggested that I kind of masterminded the whole thing, and that’s just totally inaccurate.
Anything I wrote or said has nothing to do with the nature of my job. Environment Canada’s values and ethics code says that you have to maintain your impartiality and your objectivity in your duties. I’ve done that. Has my ability to do my job in an impartial and objective manner been compromised? I would say no, and my union agrees with me.
How did you find out you’d been suspended from work?
I come back from holiday and there was a phone call from Environment Canada saying they had a document they wanted to send to me. I phoned them and said I’ll just pick it up when I go to work tomorrow. And they said no, no, we’re going to courier it to you. The allegations were outlined and they said I was suspended with pay.
The officials said they would conduct the inquiry in a complete and expeditious manner, but after eight weeks of being on suspension and knowing that they had all the information that they needed, I could tell they were just sidelining me, keeping me away. I only had about 15 workdays left, so I decided, well, they’re just going to keep me on the sidelines until after the election or until I retire.
Why do you think they suspended you?
What I did, writing and performing the song, was totally separate from my office duties, and they could clearly see that very early on, that there was no relationship. Yes, it was political, but it was nothing I did in the workplace. But they chose to suspend me. My union said that that was an unusual step. I don’t know for sure, but I have to assume that it was some political forces at play.
Yes, it was an edgy song. But we have freedom of expression in this country, and even public servants have that. Any kind of code should not trump freedom of expression for 240,000 public servants. It’s just wrong.
What was it like on Sept. 17 when there were rallies across the country and you couldn’t attend?
I was quite moved by the whole experience, because I knew that a lot of those people that were gathered, as much as they were singing an anti-Harper song, they were also singing in support of me. That was very touching.
You performed at two Green Party rallies last weekend. Anymore plans to perform the song between now and Election Day?
If it helps defeat the Conservatives, I will sing that song anywhere that people can take me to. To be honest, I really wasn’t that political, even when I wrote the song it was more of an intellectual exercise. But I got kind of emotionally involved with the whole song-writing exercise, because that’s what music does. That’s what resonates with people. It just gives an additional dimension to the anger that they feel, even though we sang it in a joyful way.
Do you have any regrets?
My main regret is that I wasn’t able to complete a project that I had been working on for the last 19-20 months. It was a pre-retirement project that I had initiated and I’d wanted to see completed by the time I left. I got word that the project was going to have successful results. But I wasn’t going to be there at the finish line. That’s what hurts the most.
I think the whole suspension thing was actually punishing me before they’d made their decision, now that I look back at it. At the time I was acting in good faith. But I don’t think they had any intention of providing a decision.