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Declassified police documents describe Rita MacNeil as “the one who composes and sings women’s lib songs.”

Declassified police documents describe Rita MacNeil as “the one who composes and sings women’s lib songs.”

People

Rita MacNeil “I’m no rabble-rouser”

by Frances Rooney | October 20, 2008

For decades, many Canadians thought of Rita MacNeil as their own gentle, shy, legendary singer songwriter. Then, last August, recently declassified documents from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealed that, in the early 1970s, she was part of a group that the RCMP infiltrated and spied on. As a result, she was the subject of an RCMP investigation.

Rita MacNeil subversive? Radical? A security risk?

The documents – made public by historians Steve Hewitt and Chritabelle Sethna – identify her as “the one who composes and sings women’s lib songs.”

Women were meeting without men, without the reassuring hats and gloves of middle-class ladies’ groups – with their own agenda.

One of the RCMP documents describes a gathering that consisted “of about 100 sweating, uncombed women standing around in the middle of the floor with their arms around each other crying sisterhood and dancing.” The national police force didn’t know what to make of them.

While spies looked for communists, women agitated for fundamental shifts in our social fabric:

  • child care
  • maternity pay
  • equal pay for work of equal value
  • the right to walk down the street or do your job without harassment
  • punishment for crimes against women

“It was all very straightforward,” MacNeil said in a recent CBC interview, “and what people do when they’re trying to get other people aware of the problems that are going on and things that need to get fixed in the world.”

In 1971, she did what she does best – she sang about it all.

When she found out last August that her audiences included RCMP spies, Rita MacNeil commented, “I just wish I had known I was under surveillance because I would’ve asked them for a ride home.” Laughing, she added, “I’m no rabble-rouser.”

She may be no rabble rouser, yet the singer is still someone who gently points out things that need to be fixed in the world.

And she is much, much more.

singer

Songwriter. Canadian music legend, with 23 albums. Heart and soul of Rita MacNeil’s Christmas, which this year is touring 18 Canadian cities before its annual airing on CBC television. For two decades participant in an extraordinary collaboration with Men of the Deeps, the choir of retired Cape Breton coal miners.

beater of all the odds

Shy. Gentle. Loving. Strong. Home body from the tiny village of Big Pond, Cape Breton. A woman who does not conform to the almost-anorexic stereotypes of so-called feminine beauty, who grew up poor and with a cleft palate. A woman who appreciates her local and global communities, and sings for the people in those communities. A person who has always worn her heart on her sleeve and has been singing from that heart for most of her 64 years.

explorer

Her songs delve into those things that connect us all. Her CDs and albums have names like Songs My Mother Loved (2006), Mining of the Soul (2000), Home I’ll Be (1990), I’m Not What I Seem (1983), and her first, Born a Woman (1975). They speak of what it means to love your place of birth and the people of that place, to be displaced, to be a woman, to work in the dark and danger of coal mines. And her very personal explorations make visible those who are usually invisible. Her songs show how people are connected to each other and their world.

During the 1970s, Rita lived in Ottawa and Toronto. She sang at rallies, benefits and concerts across Canada. By 1978, she was the single mom of two. And she was tired. She left it all and went home to Big Pond, not knowing what she would do next, or even if she would continue singing. Happily, “That’s when my career took a better direction. Moving back home, the writing seemed to open up more and I was re-introduced to my roots.” She wrote, sang, recorded.

She was invited to sing at Expo 86. She noted with some irony that, after 15 years of singing publicly, she became an overnight success – launched into international fame and travel. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were albums, tours, fund-raising appearances in Kosovo and other troubled parts of the world, awards, TV specials and – always – the writing of songs.

During this time, she opened Rita’s Tea Room. It provides employment for many local people and has made Big Pond a tourist destination. She loves being at home with friends and family, especially her four grandchildren.

For the last few years, she has toured and performed most frequently in Eastern Canada. She still does perform in other parts of the country, and each year there is her annual Christmas special, a Canadian tradition for almost two decades.

It has never been easy. Before her 2000 Christmas special, she said backstage, “I think they’re going to throw tomatoes.” But her need to love, sing and connect has always been stronger than her fear.

What is the magic of Rita MacNeil? Her extraordinary voice. Her clear, gentle honesty. Her generosity of spirit. Her willingness to speak of her own heartbreak, yearning and hope. Her belief in the right to a life of dignity and love. And that special something that makes allows her heart to speak directly to ours.

She says of Christmas, “I love the magic of it, the goodness, the hope and of course, the music.”

That’s also a pretty good description of her. Perhaps it is Rita’s down-to-earth humanity that is truly subversive. Radical, even.

One thing is for sure, the nature of who Rita MacNeil is will not be found in any RCMP file.

... give us the names of all the women ‘monitored’ these women deserve the order of canada! god bless the charter and god bless the canadian women’s liberation movement. go rita! ...

— comment that followed a CBC story about the RCMP and the singer

the facts: Rita MacNeil
  • first stage performance: 1971
  • albums: 23 (1 gold, 3 platinum, 4 double platinum, 1 triple platinum)
  • songs: hundreds
  • awards: 4 Geminis, 3 Junos, 4 Canadian Country Music Awards, 7 East Coast Music Awards, Order of Canada, Order of Nova Scotia
  • books: 3 (including her autobiography, On a Personal Note, Key Porter)
  • the only: singer to have had 3 albums on the charts in the same year in Australia
  • honorary doctorates: 5 from Canadian universities
  • appearances: in several documentary films and numerous television specials, including the annual Rita MacNeil's Christmas
  • starred: 3 years on the weekly TV show, Rita & Friends
  • 2004: a storyline in season 4 of Trailer Park Boys finds Rita and her band kidnapped by the boys and forced to harvest marijuana

features

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