Some things are simply self-evident, universally known truths: The sky is blue, the grass is green, and Canadians are exceedingly polite. Not so long ago, there was even evidence to corroborate this claim: A study looking at 40 million tweets from Canadian and American accounts revealed that the former primarily uses positive language on the social media platform, while the latter largely employs negative words and profanity, according to Mother Jones.
And now there’s a heartwarming song to embrace the stereotype, too.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the husband and wife team known for their Tony Award-winning musical, “Come From Away,” released a new single in partnership with Destination Canada, titled “This Is Canada Nice.” It’s a love letter to Canada of sorts, a brief, 90-second ode to a nation that brings us beautiful landscapes, a mosaic of people and languages, quaint neighborhoods and bustling cities, cultural attractions and culinary delights, and more.
“The idea was to talk about the word ‘nice.’ Canada is often known as nice, but we started to think about what that actually means,” says Hein, who grew up in the country’s prairies. “When trying to define ‘nice’ for ourselves, we realized that [it] was a way for us to also celebrate Canada’s diversity. There’s this huge country with amazing people, and each one of them define the word ‘nice’ in a different way…It was a way for us to celebrate the arts, sciences, athletes — the whole spectrum of Canada through this one word.”
The cast of characters who lent their voices for the piece include Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, who is also a neurologist; Iskwe, an Indigenous singer-songwriter; Rita Baga, celebrated Quebecois drag queen; Canadian cast members from “Come From Away,” and other authors, athletes, and artists.
“We’re so lucky to work with this incredible group — some of our heroes, who could define ‘nice’ each in a different way. And then set those definitions against different animation and music styles across Canada,” says Hein. “One of the things we love about this project is that in a time when so many artists are out of work, we were able to bring together this community to celebrate Canada and create a piece of art together…It was wonderful to be given the opportunity to connect with all of these different people, to bring in our 'Come From Away' cast, and to create something right now that will hopefully give people a little bit of hope for traveling in the future and reconnecting and coming together again.”
Starting by writing down things they love about Canada, as well reaching out to others for their input, it wasn’t long before the couple had an entire wall filled with Post-it notes celebrating the country. For Irene, connecting with people across the nation helped fuel her creative process.
“We spoke to this gentleman who started a company called Peace by Chocolate after his factories in Syria were bombed. He came to Nova Scotia and was welcomed here as a refugee. He’s just got so much light, love, and gratefulness in him,” she says. “Getting a better idea of the breadth of the world, how many stories there are, how many different journeys people have been on and are going on, and just opening our eyes to that has been very inspiring creatively.”
The indomitable human spirit has been a common thread in the duo’s work — most notably, in their Broadway play, “Come From Away,” which tells the real-life tale of the people in Gander, a town in Newfoundland that welcomed in travelers stranded during the September 11 attacks.
“To some degree, when we started writing ‘Come From Away,’ we started going to school — to the school of nice — and started to learn about how being nice, how building a community, how working together with people was so important,” says Hein. “And right now, it feels like the world has gotten more and more divisive. There’s so much arguing, anger, and fear out there, that what being nice means, to me and us, is being able to overcome that and come together. And that’s what we need to do now more than ever.”
Irene adds, “We talked about how nice sometimes gets a bad rap, but nice isn’t passive — it’s very active. Nice is courageous, nice is a skill, and it’s brave…It means that you’re a little more gracious, and take the time to listen…It’s more complex than a lot of people give it credit for.”
The song’s message seamlessly lends itself to travel, too. “When we started talking about this campaign, we were excited about a time when the pandemic was fading, and we could travel again,” says David. “That’s what we wanted to infuse this with — the hope that there will be a time of optimism. There will be a time in the future when we get to explore again, and when we get to do it together as a community.”
And when that time comes, everything that makes Canada “nice” — the people, places, food, and cultures — will be there.
Ask a local like David what his favorite Canadian destinations are, and he’ll say: “How long can we go on for?” Hein gushes over Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan: “The sky [there] is so wide and beautiful. And when the northern lights dance on it, it’s just amazing,” he says. He also recommends the capital city of Ottawa — namely, the Tulip Festival — and Gimli, a beautiful little place on the side of Lake Winnipeg. “It’s like little Iceland,” he says about the latter.
For Irene, Banff and Vancouver are standouts. “I love sitting in one of those up-high rotating restaurants and seeing a little biplane below me, and the city, and hiking trails — it’s got everything,” she says.
“We’d be remiss not to mention Newfoundland, because it’s the most amazing place in the world,” says Hein. “The geography there is incredible, but it’s secondary to the people and their kindness. You go to a town like Gander, and it’s not spectacular, but the people are spectacular, and they’re well worth the drive.”
But for now, they’re staying put, finding inspiration in new ways. “I’m inspired by all of the artists who are getting us through this moment, whether it’s a Netflix show or music,” says Hein. “Every artist we know has been creating throughout this and finding inspiration in their community, often fundraising and doing something good for the world. Earlier, we supported a local who was printing PPE masks on a 3D printer. These stories are what inspired us to keep going…You look on the news and you see this divided world that’s angry at each other, but often if you look in between, you see people supporting one another.”
Of course, people are still hurting, without jobs, and have lost loved ones, and that’s not lost on Hein and Sankoff.
“Just knowing how devastated the community is, from actors and front-of-house staff to the entire area, like the local coffee shops and bars and restaurants,” Irene says of the hardest part of Broadway being shut. “People [might not] realize what a humongous part of the ecosystem the arts are.”
But Hein and Sankoff remain hopeful about Broadway’s future. “Theater is going to come back. Theater has been around for thousands of thousands of years. So, I don’t think there’s any danger that theater won’t come back. We’re going to overcome this,” says Hein. “What’s exciting is that theater can also exist in a new way online — people have been doing Zoom theater, live captures of shows. I hope this expands the medium and vocabulary of it, and just gives more people more access to it.”
As for the first thing they’ll do when they’re back in a theater, Hein says, “see every single show.”
“Irene and I often stand at the back of the theater, so what I’m looking forward to is being at the very back with everyone — the bartenders and front-of-house staff and people who sold the tickets — and just watching the audience, celebrating that the audience is back. And [watching] the audience celebrating that the cast and band are back on stage — it’s going to be so joyous.”
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