MANITOULIN – When Great Big Sea co-founder Sean McCann left the popular Canadian band after 20 years, it was because he needed to face the truth: he was using alcohol to mask the pain of sexual abuse by a priest. This November 9, 2021 he will celebrate 10 years sober. He didn’t quit singing, however, because music is his medicine.
Mr. McCann is also a keynote speaker, published author and the recipient of the Order of Canada for his advocacy for those living with mental and health addictions issues. He brought his powerful message of recovery, in story and in song, to youth across Manitoulin Island this week with special guest drummer and singer, Nimkeehns Wemigwans, who grew up in Wiikwemkoong.
The youth mental health tour had stops at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS), Sheguiandah, Sheshegwaning, Aundeck Omni Kaning and Gwekwaadziwin Miikan. It was hosted by Mnaamodzawin Health Services (MHS) to help break down the stigma around mental health and highlight the supports and services available to Island youth.
The idea for this event started back in 2019. MHS hosted a men’s mental health day in 2018, bringing in Theo Fleury as a speaker. The goal was to organize a similar day for women and then for youth. Mr. McCann was a keynote presenter at the MHS Wellness Conference in February 2020, which turned out to be his last live performance before the pandemic hit. This was originally planned as one large event but because of COVID-19, became instead a three-day tour with smaller gatherings.
“We targeted youth, teens and young adults with this,” said Rebecca Milne, allied health manager with MHS. “It’s a great time to be having this. It’s the beginning of a new school year and it’s been a long year for youth with virtual classes, staying home, isolation and being away from friends and supports they might not have at home.”
The tour began at MSS, presenting to two cohorts last Tuesday. Mr. Wemigwans sang a welcoming song before introducing Mr. McCann. “That was very powerful, Nimkeehns,” said Mr. McCann, who dove right into his story. “We’ve all got inside of us a voice. Every one of us here has power inside us. Real power. The heart of the matter for me, it’s always about truth.”
He spoke about the secrets, pain, shame and anger that nearly destroyed him but also about hope, recovery and how a song can save your life.
He hid his own secret for 35 years. “I carried it around like a stone,” he said. At age 15, Mr. McCann was sexually abused by a priest; one who had befriended his family, who took him to Rome to meet the Pope.
After one of the MSS shows, a student asked, ‘If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?’ Mr. McCann replied, “I would have found one person, someone to share my secret with so I wouldn’t be alone. When I tried to put out hints and things, it seemed as if no one wanted to listen, but I should have tried harder because there’s always someone. You’re not alone.”
He had felt alone with his secret and for years tried to hide from the truth. “In the 1990s and 2000s, I played in a band called Great Big Sea. We were a party band. Our job was to bring Saturday night to every corner and nook of Canada,” he said. He felt like he had won the lottery. For Mr. McCann, it was a great way to avoid the truth. He kept his secret for nearly 35 years until it almost killed him, before he told his mother with a song.
“I believe that a secret can kill you. I believe I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have that song. I believe that song saved my life. Every time I reach the end of that song, I feel better.”
Music is the common thread throughout his talks. He tells a story about choosing ‘Old Brown,’ his very first acoustic guitar, over a bottle of whiskey that he knew would take away his pain. He picked up his guitar and wrote ‘Stronger,’ the first song he wrote sober. “I wrote that song and I knew I’d be okay,” he said.
Every time he sings that song he feels stronger because he remembers what it did for him.
“Music is strong medicine,” he told the students. “Music is an excellent alternative to drugs and alcohol. It’s important and helps us deal with the truth. It gives us energy and resilience to do that.”
“If you knew me before you would have met a very different person, a very weak person, a very ashamed person, a very angry man,” he said. “I’m glad you’re not meeting that person because I don’t ever want to be that person again.”
There’s another story he tells, about a small music festival on the north coast of Newfoundland, a woman from Fergus, Ontario and a four-leaf clover. He went to the festival determined to never again sing another Great Big Sea song. He met the woman behind the stage, where she was searching the grass for four-leaf clovers. She told him to never give up. She also told him she’d been hit by a drunk driver and the lights, noise and crowds from a typical concert caused her to have seizures. She had driven all the way from Fergus to this small town to hear Sean McCann sing Great Big Sea songs one more time.
He did sing Great Big Sea songs that night and as he did, he felt the weight of anger leave his body. He felt freer with each Great Big Sea song he sang. That person saved his life that day, he said, and taught him a huge lesson.
“Anger is always the enemy. Anger never wants to help. Anger wants to destroy. Anger wants to divide. Anger wants to hurt. It will, every time you let it. There is one cure for anger, one antidote. There is a vaccine against anger, and that is love,” he said.
Anger management has been key for him. Truth facing has been key. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t able to get around that. Music got me there. Music got me wealth and fame and then it saved my life. In that order. That was never the problem. It wasn’t music’s fault. For a while I wasn’t going to play guitar anymore but that was dumb. That’s what I was born to do. That’s just the way it played out.”
Mr. McCann is an engaging storyteller with a ready smile and a powerful singing voice. His show was slightly different at each stop, heavier or lighter depending on the audience. He didn’t talk about sexual abuse when there were small children in attendance but generally doesn’t shy away from the truth, “especially when it’s kids in high school. That’s actually the right time, because it was when it happened for me and it’s when it happens for most people. I don’t hold back.”
He shares a lot in a short period of time and hopes some of the message sticks. “You’re never alone,” he told audiences. “We’re all going through something. There’s always going to be something. It’s how we deal with them that sets us up for success or failure. If you can learn from my mistakes it won’t have been in vain.”
Mr. McCann said that one of the most powerful things you can do to help someone is to share a little bit of your story, because then they know they’re not alone. Talking about mental health and addiction also helps to reduce stigma around those issues, and that was one of MHS’ goals, Ms. Milne said. “We want to break down that stigma around mental health but also showcase the importance of MHS. There are supports out there for First Nations communities and in general.”
MHS services Sheguiandah, Whitefish River, Aundeck Omni Kaning, Sheshegwaning and Zhiibaahaasing First Nations and has four dedicated mental health counsellors on staff, she said. “They’ve all been very busy. We get a couple referrals a week but counsellors have been able to keep up even with COVID.”
If someone was to call MHS from a different community, Ms. Milne added, “We can help them find resources. We’re not going to turn anyone away who comes to us for help.”
MHS accepts self-referrals or doctor referrals. There are traditional healers on staff as well as modern, western practitioners including psychologists and child psychiatrists. “We can point you in the right direction,” she said. “We’re here to support you.”
To contact Mnaamodzawin Health Services for a self referral for mental health services, please call 705-368-2182 ext. 271, or you can email email@example.com. Additional contact information can be found at mnaamodzawin.com.