Great Big Sea founder reveals how to steal a secret’s power

Sean McCann, seated, centre facing camera, shares in a drum song during his visit to Manitoulin in February of this year (and before the time of physical distancing). Mr. McCann, founder of the east coast band Great Big Sea, was the guest speaker at the Mnaamodzawin Health Services Wellness Week conference. photo by Michael Erskine

LITTLE CURRENT – Sean McCann went from being the most popular drinking buddy that ever set out on a St. John’s, Newfoundland pub crawl to a lonely and friendless pariah—but along the way he discovered how to strip away the power from a secret that was set on ruining his life.

Mr. McCann is the founder of the popular Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, a group known for it’s vast repertoire of rousing drinking songs, but it was drinking that eventually came to threaten everything he valued in his life—leaving him with a difficult decision to make.

The veteran of the Canadian music scene delivered the workshop ‘One Good Reason’ at the Mnaamodzawin Health Services Wellness Week conference at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre held in early February.

Mr. McCann introduced himself to the audience, describing his Catholic upbringing in Newfoundland. As a young child he moved to St. John’s with his family. He is married, has two sons and now lives in Manotick, a suburb of Ottawa.

“I was a pretty good kid in school,” he said. “I had a good marks, played hockey and was pretty happy.”

He recalled a very popular priest that came to his community. The priest was quite the sensation and soon ingratiated himself into the community and Mr. McCann’s family. The priest took the young McCann under his wing. “My 15-year-old mind did not see any red flags,” he recalled. “I thought ‘wow, how special is this?’,” he said. “‘The priest is interested in me personally’.”

“When I got home I told my parents,” he said. “They were excited.” Soon an invitation was extended to come to the family home for supper. “He said grace. We all felt special.”

In time, the priest suggested that he would take young Sean to Rome and introduce him to the pope, if he could raise the money for the flight.

“He did introduce me to the pope,” said Mr. McCann, “but also to cigarettes and alcohol. He began sexually abusing me.”

“I didn’t know what to do about that, who to tell, how to say it,” he recalled. “I decided to keep it a secret. I kept it in me for 35 years.”

The secret stayed buried until it emerged in a song: ‘Hold Me Mother.’

“I believe a secret can kill us,” said Mr. McCann. “Secrets kill people. I kept a secret for 35 years and it almost killed me.”

Mr. McCann described his relationship with the contents of the fridge on the Great Big Sea tour bus—a fridge that was always filled with plenty of booze. It was that fridge that eventually led to Mr. McCann deciding to step away from the band and to stop even playing Great Big Sea songs for a long time.

But at first the on the road lifestyle of an alternative rock band seemed a godsend. 

“Being an alcoholic, and hiding from the truth, there is no better position,” he said. “It allowed me to hide for 28 years.” Though that came at a cost, both personal and financial. “Anyone wonder what the cost to completely empty a hotel mini bar is? $475,” he said.

Mr. McCann broke into the song ‘Hard Drinking Man’ for the audience. The audience sat in rapt attention.

Drinking helped to blot out the memories, but as his drinking progressed it became clear to Mr. McCann that it would soon “destroy everything that was dear to me.”

Despite that realization, quitting wasn’t easy.

Among the challenges was the massive loss of “friends.”

For much of his adult life, Mr. McCann was “one of the top three guys to have a drink with” and the life of just about any party going. After putting the bottle down, it was crickets in the hallway. “At any given time in St. John’s I could call up any one of a thousand people.” Afterwards, not a soul. “I had my wife and my kids,” he said.

He tried going out on the road on tour with the band. Each time he got on the bus he would come face-to-face with the bus fridge.

“When I came home, I quit again,” he said. Each time he would again face the fridge when he boarded the tour bus. The result? “I would become more depressed.” 

Realizing he couldn’t break the cycle on his own, Mr. McCann embraced a higher power. “Her name is Andrea, my wife.”

“She sat me down and gave me an ultimatum,” he said. “’You have two kids,’ she said. ‘We are not going to watch. If you drink again, we are gone’.”

At that moment it became clear to Mr. McCann what he had to lose. “I put the glass down and it stuck,” he said. “That was in 2011 and I haven’t touched a drink since then.”

But there was still that fridge, and his relationship with his band members were deteriorating rapidly. It didn’t help 

He announced plans to stop touring with the band at the end of December 2013.

After he quit drinking the nightmares began and the memories, so long buried, came flooding back in a deluge.

It wasn’t until he faced down the secret, pulled it into the light, that he was able to get a handle on the one weapon that will drain a secret of its life destroying power—dragging that secret out from the dark recesses where it was buried into the full light of day.

“By acknowledging my truth,” said Mr. McCann, “it was no longer my prison.”

“The past is something we can’t control,” he said, “but we can use it to our advantage.”

For a number of years Mr. McCann had vowed to never sing the songs of Great Big Sea again, but an incident at a small folk festival with about 300 people, one without a beer tent, changed his mind.

He saw a woman searching for a four-leaf clover. She had been struck by a drunk driver when she was 10 and since then had not been able to tolerate crowds, bright lights or high volumes. “She told me ‘I haven’t been able to see you’,” he recalled.

He went on stage to sing every song from the repertoire that he could recall and has been singing his songs ever since. Following the show, the woman gave him the four-leaf clover she had found.

“I had it silvered and I am wearing it today,” said Mr. McCann.

The key message Mr. McCann had for his audience, many of whom are still struggling with the impact of the residential school system and the ‘60s Scoop, is to not let secrets destroy you.

“You can take the power away from a secret,” he said. “Don’t keep it buried inside you where it can fester and ruin your life and relationships.”

Mr. McCann joined his cousins following the conference, being related to the family of Bud and the late Ann Debassige.

“I am looking forward to catching up with my Manitoulin family,” he said.

Other workshops at the conference included presentations by Derek Debassige of Manitoulin Physio; Natalie Hastings with Drumfit; Christain Hebert with a presentation on Jordan’s Principle; Joe Pitwawakwat, who spoke on traditional medicines; the UCCM Police which  delivered a talk on cannabis and community safety; Jennifer Bitner with ‘Mind Fitness Mastery Skills;’ Magical Paws on therapy dogs; Karen Pitawanakwat on the Canadian Indigenous Cognitive Assessment Tool; Will Morin on language and culture; and Gwekwaadziwin Miikan: healing with the land. 

Throughout the three-day conference massages were available courtesy of Jaguar Spirit, while foot care took place on Tuesday, reflexology with Barb Recollect on Wednesday and Thursday and hand massages were also offered on Thursday.

Elder in residence for the conference was Ken Kakeeway, who was available for one-on-one sessions.