The ’90s Canadian Invasion

By Sean Braswell


Because you could have been far more convincing when you posed as a Canadian backpacking in Europe during the Bush years.

Pop quiz: Which of the following musicians is not Canadian? Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan or Justin Bieber? Wrong, they’re all Canadian. And with the exception of Bieber, who was in diapers at the time, they were all belting out platinum hits during the 1990s. If you add to that list groups like Crash Test Dummies, Nickelback and the Barenaked Ladies, suddenly you begin to wonder if maybe you spent your wasted youth in the Toronto suburbs. And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? Or at least as ironic as Alanis’s song not being all that ironic?

The big catalyst for the explosion of Canadian artists in recent decades was … big government. 

Sure, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell did Canada proud in the ’60s and ’70s, and Arcade Fire is Canada’s current darling. The band will be touring the States most of next year in support of Reflektor, the group’s first record since it beat out Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Eminem for album of the year at the 2011 Grammys.

But we think the 1990s were a magical decade for Canadian musicians. Canada’s rich music tradition goes back centuries, particularly in remote areas where music was a favorite pastime for immigrant communities living in relative isolation. But the big catalyst for the explosion of Canadian artists in recent decades was … big government. In an effort to prevent Canadian artists from being swamped by American media and to grow its own pop music industry, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued content regulations in 1971, which by the ’90s required Canadian radio stations to play 35 percent Canadian content. In 1984, the CRTC even launched its own version of MTV called Much Music, which provided Canadian musicians an outlet to promote their music to television audiences across the country.

Canada has not been able to help shelter its musicians from peer-to-peer file sharing and the shift away from radio and television in the last decade, and its music industry has suffered. But for a time, Canadian musicians dominated all of our airwaves. 

Shania Twain

Born Eilleen Edwards, Twain grew up in poverty in a remote area of Ontario and started playing local bars at age 8 to help her family make ends meet.

Celine Dion

This French-Canadian diva grew up performing at her parents’ small Quebec piano bar. After winning the 1988 Eurovision song contest, learning English and getting dental surgery, she was on her way to becoming an international sensation.

Alanis Morissette

Every label except one passed on Alanis’s breakout album, Jagged Little Pill, and sales were limited until KROQ-FM in Los Angeles began playing the searing single “You Oughta Know.”

Bryan Adams

This Canadian rocker, who worked for years as a dishwasher before he got his break, is also a prize-winning photographer who has done shoots for Vogue, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Guess Jeans, Converse and others.

Sarah McLachlan

Uwe Vandrei, an infatuated fan and stalker, sued this Nova Scotian singer-songwriter in 1994, claiming that his letters had been the basis for her single “Possession” before admitting that the lawsuit was merely a pretext to get closer to McLachlan. Vandrei committed suicide just before the case went to trial.

Crash Test Dummies

The Winnipeg band was originally known as Bad Brad Roberts and the St. James Rhythm Pigs until a friend who was in medical school suggested that they name themselves after the diagnostic mannequin.

k.d. lang

This outspoken pop singer came out as a lesbian way back in 1992, and, despite growing up in the middle of Alberta’s cattle-ranching country, she has waged a national “Meat Stinks” campaign.

Barenaked Ladies

The Ladies played the Peach Pit as guest stars on an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1997, and Jason Priestley even directed their “Old Apartment” video.