The Curriculum of The Tragically Hip? Examining National Identity Formation Through “Fireworks” a curriculum artifact analysis by Marie Roberts for EDU 5260: Introduction to Curriculum Studies

The Curriculum of The Tragically Hip? Examining National Identity Formation Through “Fireworks” a curriculum artifact analysis by Marie Roberts for EDU 5260: Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Without questioning why, I have always thought of the song “Fireworks” by The Tragically Hip as an unofficial anthem for Canada: a song about hockey that I have on many occasions belted out from memory around an open campfire, sitting on the shores of one of the many beautiful lakes that dot the Ontario landscape. Never have I paused to consider, is this a song that every Canadian can relate to? Only now, as a future teacher and (aspiring) curriculum theorist, do I see the importance of this question: as Ted Aoki (1983/2009) notes, assumptions and ideologies of both curriculum writers and implementers can often be “hidden from view” (p. 121). My own understanding of Canadian-ness—which is partially informed by “Fireworks”—is part of my hidden curriculum. Through an autobiographical account of my formation of national identity, I will attempt the reflective process that Aoki (1983/2009) argues is vital for educators to perform in order to, among other things, reorient curriculum so that it relates to all Canadians and their ideas of national identity.

In a previous collaborative paper, my colleagues and I complicated the notion of national identity through Aoki’s (2000/2009) theoretical concept of “Yû-mu,” the non-essentialist notion of privileging neither a presence nor an absence of something. We looked at how some may identify with this site of the in-between in terms of their national identity. One colleague self-identified as Indo-Canadian—sometimes inhabiting the “Indo” sphere, and at others, the “Canadian” one, but simultaneously being both and neither. Alternatively, another colleague considered his automatic Canadian-ness. He related to an obscure national identity, one which he could neither deny nor explain. We determined that instead of viewing this site of the in-between as a place of uncertainty, we could take solace in knowing that it was “pregnant with possibilities” (Aoki, 2000/2009, p. 323). But for my own idea of national identity, I have never resided in this promising space of the in-between. I have always just assumed that I sit on one side of the binary: simply Canadian, with nothing on the other side of the dash.

Rewinding to my childhood, I have vivid memories of being asked, “What’s your heritage?” I would often reply with a terse explanation of how I come from such a varied mix of European backgrounds that I am, essentially, a “European mutt”. Not knowing where exactly I acquired this unfortunate self-identifier, I used it over the years to signify that I do not have one or two traceable lineages to distinct cultures. I could never call myself Irish-Canadian, French-Canadian, or British. I did not identify with the seemingly exotic family traditions of my friends. One would detail how for hours she would labour with her Polish grandmother to produce the savoury perogies that became the highlight of a grand family meal at Christmas time. Another took me with her on a family trip to Toronto, where we visited the local mosque. Hundreds of her family members congregated together to practice their faith and indulge in a large feast. I was both mystified and intrigued by the traditions unfolding in front of me, feeling alien to a culture and a family completely unlike my own. I often felt like something was missing from my own sense of identity, because to me, I was just (boring) Canadian.

One of the ways that my national identity has been informed over the years is through music, and more particularly, through the music of The Tragically Hip. Having grown up in small-town Ontario, I always viewed this Kingston band as quintessentially Canadian. Their lyrics spoke to a Canada that I knew. For instance, “Fireworks” starts with the lines:

If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ole’ 72,

We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger…

These opening lyrics have drawn me in over the years, making me feel part of something bigger than my small-town existence usually afforded. Regardless of what the song in its entirety speaks to, I wanted to be a part of that “everyone” who remembers, whether I was alive to witness the goal or not. That was my everyone. Growing up, everyone I knew played hockey—either in organized leagues or in makeshift games of pickup on a frozen pond—and so there was no question in my mind that hockey and the spirit of togetherness that it brought was part of my Canadian identity. I never considered the potential meaning of the rest of the song: the idea of shirking the nation for love, of realizing “what you can accomplish / When you don’t let the nation get in your way” (The Tragically Hip, 1998, para. 7). This message did not matter to me, because I was already sold on the romantic notion of being united with my fellow Canadians; that emotion of caring about something as a nation that is unique to us alone. Since I could never relate to the various cultural traditions I witnessed in other families, I felt like I was solely Canadian, not living in the cracks of identity, but part of the “everyone” who related to hockey and Canadian-ness.

Although it is an overstatement to claim that one song could inform my entire sense of national identity, it does however signify how my idea of Canadian-ness has been narrowly defined. The word “everyone” is key here. I thought that every Canadian could see themselves in this song, amongst the “everyone” who remembers, and within the other cultural practices that I attached to The Tragically Hip: drinking beer, going to cottages on the weekends, packing up the gear and heading to the lake for camping, sitting around a campfire and everyone knowing the lyrics to their songs. As I unconsciously developed this limited notion of Canadian-ness, I in turn unintentionally formed a sense of what was not Canadian. Without realizing it, my assumption became that any Canadian could in some way relate to this song and its attached cultural significations. To return to Aoki (2000/2009) and the concept of “Yû-mu,” I began to assume that every Canadian could somehow identify with the presence of these qualities, but never did I consider the absences. Who was being left out of this view of national belonging? Only now, it becomes apparent to me that this is an extremely narrow sense of national identity, but one that consciously or not, informs my assumptions when interacting with school curriculum and students.

It is this kind of assumption that Aoki (1983/2009) reminds us is necessary to reflect on when engaging in implementation as “situational praxis.” This theory negates the traditional view of implementation as “instrumental action”—in which the teacher is viewed as an instrument meant to objectively implement the curriculum that has been passed down from curriculum experts—and instead favours the idea of curriculum implementation as grounded in human experience, where theory and praxis are “twin moments of the same reality” (p. 120). Situational praxis recognizes the subjectivity of the teacher, who interprets curriculum within his or her own lived reality. Aoki (1983/2009) urges both teachers and students to be critically reflective of themselves and of their realities. It is then, Aoki (1983/2009) argues, that the possibility for “empowerment that can nourish transformation of the self and the curriculum reality” emerges (p. 121). Reflection allows a teacher to determine how his or her underlying assumptions—such as a limited notion of national belonging—affects both his or her interpretation of the curriculum, and enables a reorientation through praxis. It is by exposing and critically reflecting on one’s hidden curriculum that the pursuit of “liberation and fulfilment” in the classroom can be realized (p. 122).

One of the most integral aspects to this liberating process is the deconstruction of what Aoki (1991/2009) calls “metanarratives”—a term he borrows from Jean François Lyotard—that he implies can pervade school curriculums. This term is meant to signify the modernist notion of the grand narratives that have been used to explain concepts such as “unity and totality” (p. 208). One study that demonstrates this type of metanarrative that can be found throughout the school curriculum is Ken Montgomery’s (2005) analysis of high school history textbooks. He traces the theme of blood as denoting national belonging throughout the textbooks, determining that nationalism in Canadian history curriculum is still based upon notions of consanguinity. Although my own type of national identity (as informed by The Tragically Hip) did not fall along racial lines, it still has the same effect of privileging only the presence of certain characteristics, and does not consider what remains absent. Instead of favouring these metanarratives in the curriculum, Aoki (1991/2009) insists that we should open the way to include everyday lived narratives as legitimate knowledge in the curriculum. This liberating process can be achieved through implementation as situational praxis—through critically reflecting on one’s subjectivity and by continually transforming “curriculum-as-planned” and “curriculum-as-lived” (Aoki, 1983/2009).

In order to create a Canadian curriculum that is both liberating and fulfilling for students and teachers alike, curriculum theorists and educators need to move towards an understanding of national identity that does not fit into a grand narrative. As Hans Smits (2008) reminds us, various “historical, social, economic and cultural conditions … provide contingent conditions for our sense of place, identity, and social structure” (p. 103). It is thus the everyday narratives that matter for peoples’ sense of belonging. And this belonging, Cynthia Chambers (2006) argues, is crucial to achieve in the curriculum for all Canadians:

How we, as scholars and as teachers, face these difficult questions will expose how much of a home Canada really is, not just for those from elsewhere, but for those who live on the borders, in those overlapping territories of the past and the present, the rich and the poor, the south and the north, east and west, rural and urban. Curriculum in Canada faces the challenges of being the passport to understanding, and acting on behalf of, all of Canada, its more fragile people and places as well as its most robust and vibrant. (p. 11)

All teachers and theorists who both create and implement the curriculum need to critically reflect on the ways that their sense of national belonging has been, and is currently informed. Their assumptions will transform curriculum and impact students’ sense of national identity. As Smits (2006) asserts, Canadian curriculum theory thus far has rested on the negation of “the voices of others in Canada, historically and presently” (p. 109). If students cannot see themselves in the curriculum—just as many likely cannot see themselves in the song “Fireworks”—how can school legitimately bring about “liberation and fulfilment” for each student (Aoki, 1983/2009, p. 122)?

By critically reflecting on the ways that my own sense of nationality has been formed throughout my life, I am attempting to make “conscious the unconscious” and to orient my own practice towards a better understanding of how my subjectivity can transform the curriculum (Aoki, 1983/2009, pp. 118-121). I have developed an idea of national identity through an affinity for The Tragically Hip. My assumptions about belonging unconsciously formed around a sense of “everyone” being able to somehow relate to the lyrics of the song “Fireworks”—since I thought that the band was so quintessentially Canadian, I never stopped to consider if it really did in fact speak to all citizens’ individual experience. Through many years of university, which involved my moving away from that small-town environment to a larger city, I developed a greater understanding of the multiple senses of national belonging in Canada. I realized that many vastly different people call this place home. Their individual narratives are therefore crucial to include in a Canadian curriculum. So the next time that I am loudly singing out the lyrics to “Fireworks” at the lake in Ontario cottage country, I will know that this feeling is just one of the many ways that Canadian-ness can be interpreted and expressed.


Aoki, T. T. (1983/2009). Curriculum implementation as instrumental action and as situational praxis. In W. F. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted. T. Aoki (pp. 109-123). New York: Routledge.

Aoki, T. T. (1991/2009). Five curriculum memos and a note for the next half-century. In W. F. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted. T. Aoki (pp. 247-256). New York: Routledge.

Aoki, T. T. (2000/2009). Language, culture, and curriculum… In W. F. Pinar & R. L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted. T. Aoki (pp. 321-329). New York: Routledge.

Chambers, C. (2006). “Where do I belong?” Canadian curriculum as passport home. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 2, 1-18.

Montgomery, K. (2005). Banal race-thinking: Ties of blood, Canadian history textbooks and ethnic nationalism. Paedagogica Historica, 42(3), 313-336.

Smits, H. (2008). Is a Canadian curriculum studies possible? (What are the conditions of possibility?): Some preliminary notes for further inquiry. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6(2), 97-112.

The Tragically Hip. (1998). Fireworks. Retrieved from