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Land 'the essence' to fixing Canadian colonialism: Propagandhi's Chris Hannah

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is not enough, say Winnipeg political punk icons as they continue their Victory Lap tour to Vancouver.

Propagandhi (from left): Sulynn Hago, Chris Hannah, Jord Samolesky, and Todd Kowalski

Courtesy Greg Gallinger

Propagandhi (from left): Sulynn Hago, Chris Hannah, Jord Samolesky, and Todd Kowalski

Thirty-one years, seven albums and an ECHO songwriting prize haven't improved Chris Hannah's surprisingly low view of Propagandhi, the Manitoba punk band he co-founded with drummer Jord Samolesky.

Touring with Victory Lap — their first album in five years and their first with Florida guitarist Sulynn Hago — Hannah admitted being in Propagandhi takes some getting used to.

"Our band has literally been a 25-year gong show of unprofessionalism and bad decisions," Hannah admitted. "Perhaps it's a very delicate chemistry — you have to have these semi-incompetent but functional people to make the band work."

But underneath the trademark self-deprecation, the band's evolution — from 1986 pop punk pranksters to 2017 metal-leaning progressive thrashers — mirrors their increasingly nuanced reckoning with Canadian history.

From teen anti-war screeds to today's introspective musings on suffering, sacrifice and purpose, Propagandhi's evolved with their sound's complexity.

So has the band's dedication to exploring Canadian colonialism — one new song is about a 1960s Winnipeg archaeological dig which unearthed buried Indigenous heritage, "The city dug that ditch," Hannah wrote, "a few feet short of some game-changing petroglyphs."

Another song tackles poisoned drinking water, an unresolved crisis for nearly one-in-three First Nations (today, 171 reserves, including 20 in B.C., remain under do-not-drink or boil water advisories, according to Ottawa, amounting to 27 per cent of reserves): "The water is poison, despite how hard we mark our little 'X' to rearrange the deck," Hannah laments.

As Canadians largely embrace the idea of Indigenous reconciliation — partly thanks to fellow musicians like the late Gord Downie and Neil Young — Hannah thinks reconciliation's just not enough.

He spoke to Metro in the midst of packing up the band's Winnipeg practice space readying for a Vancouver show Wednesday. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Metro: You've been very political from the start, but your Indigenous content has amped up—on the last two or three albums many songs are about colonization in more and more depth.

Chris Hannah: It's hard for us not to. We grew up in rural Manitoba in communities bordering on places like Dakota Tipi and Long Plain first nations. So we grew up with Indigenous people in our lives, but at a distance. We played hockey with the kids from the reserve. When they'd come into town we'd hang out — but no one from town ever went to the reserve. And the way people talked about Indigenous people in town, behind their backs, was f---ing unbelievable. But really, it's totally believable.

So what changed in your mind?

Growing up with that in our back pocket, and then coming to 1990 when the Oka Crisis blew up, instead of looking at it through the eyes of a patriotic Canadian kid, I tried to see it through an Indigenous person's perspective.

I vividly remember at the time asking my dad — who was still a high-ranking military official — what do you think of this? Even he thought it was disgusting they'd use the military against, in his words, our own citizens. What he got wrong, though, was that Canada's a done deal: that these people have now been assimilated into this nation.

For a long time, my understanding of Indigenous issue plateaued — until the 2000s, especially with recent events like Idle No More, Standing Rock and even Black Lives Matter movements, the veil has been pulled even further from my eyes.

And now what do you think?

I now think we live in a de facto white supremacy. And we f---ing took their land and cheated them, took their children away and continued to take their children away after residential schools. If justice is to be had, between now and the collapse of society, it seems like the most pressing issue to get some sort of justice.

Your song Comply/Resist talks about a deeply rooted sense of 'empire, kingdom.'

The treaties that we broke, the lands that we filched … the children we abused, all for your own good, of course … Oh, why don't you worship us? —Chris Hannah, 'Comply/Resist' (Victory Lap)

There are many Canadians who would identify as not racist, but those are the deep-seated beliefs that are actually racist that people still hold — they still can say, 'But look what our society did for (Indigenous) people.' People still really don't get it. I certainly didn't get it for a long time, and I'm not sure I still do.

A lot of Canadians who want to do something different, who recognize the history of colonialism, gravitate to reconciliation. What else is there for people to do?

The voices I'm hearing from the Indigenous side are that they want their land back — because land is everything, it's the essence. Perhaps that should be what we do: start giving back land and let people govern themselves as they see fit. But is the average Canadian going to stand for that? Are ranchers? I'm not sure what's realistic, but just because something's not realistic doesn't mean it shouldn't be demanded.

People often seem most resistant when talk turns to money or land, not just apologies.

Yeah. I don't have great hopes for there actually being meaningful reconciliation. I don't think people genuinely care enough on the strong side of the balance sheet. I'm looking out my front window now and wondering, 'Who in my neighbourhood would really give a f---?' The paradox is that, with all our privilege and resources, we could all do that — yet most of us skirt around what we should really be doing and yet cultivate a perception of ourselves without actually sacrificing anything.

If someone were to ask you, 'I want to do something about colonialism, beyond reconciliation', what would you recommend?

The names that come to mind are Christi Belcourt or Leanne Simpson, two Indigenous women who have written about and are active on issues of land, language, reconciliation and reclamation.

I'd add Lee Maracle to that list too …

Yes for sure. There's not really necessarily a specific piece of writing. Every time I read something they write, I find myself involuntarily nodding.

You just played in your current hometown, Winnipeg. How was the show?

Winnipeg's always good for us — there's always familiar faces in the crowd, and Winnipeg has a kind of sense of ownership over the band. It's a kind of warm feeling when we play here.

Do people know all the lyrics, and do you find people sing along more there?

I wear these in-ear monitors and the one real draw-back is you sometimes lose sense of what's happening in the crowd. But our sound guy usually reports to us, 'You couldn't even hear the band over the crowd tonight.' We get that in a few places. But Winnipeg is a sing-along town for sure.

Your latest albums are of course very different from your first one [How to Clean Everything] — yet Victory Lap has elements going right back to the beginning. One song, Lower Order, reminds me a lot of something off How to Clean Everything. Did you scan back on purpose?

No scanning or looking back. I can see why people might think that, but we defintely weren't trying to do a throwback. Actually, the thing with that song is that the clean riff I sing over for the verse, I've been playing that melodic part on guitar probably since I was 18 years old, and had never found a place for it in a song. So I said, 'F--- this, just f---in' stick it in a goddamn song.' So there you go, maybe it is sort of a throwback to 18-year-old me.

What's it like touring now with the addition of Sulynn to the band?

I haven't asked her directly, but I feel like she really fits in with us as personalities. We're all very different people, but we're all easy-going enough to just roll as this real gong show on wheels. She's really committed to her craft and has a great heart and I just can't imagine who would have stepped in and done as good a job.

A gong show?

Our band has literally been a 25-year gong show of unprofessionalism and bad decisions. But because of that, the personalities in the band are so off the wall that it works. Perhaps it's a very delicate chemistry — you have to have these semi-incompetent but functional people to make the band work.

I see that you've upped the quality of your album art purchases, and reduced the number of compromising photos of each other you sneak into the liner notes?

(Laughs). Yeah, unfortunately. I got in trouble for the last one — I didn't tell Jord about it, it was him in his underwear.

Propagandhi play Vancouver's Rickshaw Theatre on Wednesday. Their newest album, Victory Lap, can be heard at their website.

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