People & Culture

Q&A: Attawapiskat, Ont. musician Adrian Sutherland on the story behind his First Nations rights protest song

Sutherland hopes to inspire more Canadians to consider issues of reconciliation with debut single, “Politician Man’”

  • Jan 07, 2020
  • 683 words
  • 3 minutes
Adrian Sutherland Expand Image

Adrian Sutherland is from the isolated Cree community of Attawapiskat, located on James Bay in remote northern Ontario. He’s a singer, songwriter, musician and frontman for Midnight Shine, a roots-rock band that has released three albums together since 2011. In late 2019, Sutherland released his debut solo single “Politician Man,” a protest song that speaks to Canada’s troubled relationship with First Nations. Not one to shy away from controversy, Sutherland intentionally released it just before last fall’s federal election, along with an accompanying video directed by Justin Stephenson (director of animation and editor of the video for Gord Downie’s The Secret Path). Coincidentally, Stephenson borrowed visual inspiration for the “Politican Man” music video from maps included in the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada — cartography which is also featured in the video. Canadian Geographic spoke to Sutherland about why the song is so important. 

Why did you write a protest song?

The relationship between Canada and First Nations has been difficult for a long time. “Politician Man” is about this relationship, and the need for all Canadians to start listening to each other, and taking steps together. That’s what reconciliation is about, and the message behind “Politician Man.”

Where did you get the idea for it?

I started co-writing songs in the past year, and two of my writing partners are brothers Chris and Matt Gormley. We come to sessions with ideas for songs, and Chris had the idea for “Politician Man.” Just a few weeks earlier, my community of Attawapiskat had declared a state of emergency over contaminated water, and I was feeling so tired and fed up. So when he brought the song, and we started working on it together, it really fit where my head was at. Everything clicked into place, and we knew we had something pretty special. It all came together quickly from there.

How quickly?

We wrote it mid-August, recorded it in September, and released it in mid-October. We knew if we were going to put it out, it had to happen before the federal election. That was the biggest motivator for moving things along so quickly.

How did you get Justin Stephenson involved?

We knew we wanted to release it with a video, but didn’t have the time or budget to shoot something live action. My manager and I were talking about doing something animated, and who might do it. I’m a fan of Secret Path, and immediately thought of Justin. My manager contacted him, and fortunately he said yes. He saw the vision and got the importance of it right away. We were pretty excited to have him on board.

How did Stephenson approach the video?

From the time Justin took on the project to the date we needed the video was only three weeks. So we needed something that could be done quickly. Justin came up with a really cool treatment that would combine performance footage we shot in the recording studio, with images from a map of Canada. He tied it all together using the visual language of old movie posters, and finished it off with some Cree floral patterns. It turned out amazing, and we couldn’t be happier.

We’re naturally intrigued by the map. How’d he find it?

Justin did some online research and came across the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. It includes a beautiful map that shows Indigenous territories and communities across the country. Once he found it, we really wanted to use it, so we asked Canadian Geographic if we could use it, and you said yes. It worked out perfectly.

What do you hope people will take away from “Politician Man”?

I believe the song speaks to everyone — Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people — because all people feel at one time or another that their voices aren’t heard. “Politician Man” is a reminder that we each have a voice. And how we use our voice matters.

Watch the music video for Adrian Sutherland’s “Politician Man,” which features the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada map.

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