My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying – How do we rescue the missing and murdered?

This song is actually older than I am. For Buffy Sainte Marie it was so topical she has released it on more than one occasion and modified the lyrics as a powerful statement against both the United States and Canada. ‘My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying’ may be one of the most cutting rebukes of public apathy ever written.

For many, the public outrage over residential schools and the soaring number of unmarked graves began recently, but Buffy Sainte Marie was addressing what many people knew, yet few would admit, back in 1964 when she wrote this powerful song. It was ultimately released on her third studio album ‘’Little Wheel Spin and Spin’ in 1966.

As the children were herded, and raped and converted?
And how do we rescue the missing and murdered?
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re dying.”

Buffy Sainte Marie

Through this song the Cree born singer, songwriter and activist was aiming to provide those willing to listen with a perspective on the colonization of North America, specific to the First Nations. The lyrics for ‘My Country Tis of Thy People, You’re Dying’ coincided with a period of time where Sainte Marie was becoming reacquainted with the Piapot Cree reserve she was born on, and then subsequently abandoned as an infant. Fortunately, she was adopted by a couple from Wakefield, Massachusetts of Mi’ kmaq descent, where she was raised through adulthood. By her early 20s, Buffy Sainte Marie was touring alone, throughout North America. She participated in many festivals and small venues and on First Nation reserves. Also, during this period she plied her craft in Toronto’s famed Yorkville scene, where she worked alongside artists like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. In 1964, Sainte Marie returned to her Saskatchewan birthplace and while she immersed herself in the plight of her people, she managed to channel her observations into songs like ‘Now That the Buffalo’s Gone’ and today’s feature. The lyrics I share below are actually part of the Canadian re-write that was released in 2017, on her album ‘Medicine Songs’.

Now that your big eyes are finally open
Now that you’re wondering, “How must they feel?”
Meaning them that you’ve chased across Canada’s movie screens
Now that you’re wondering, “How can it be real?”
That the ones you’ve called colorful, noble, and proud in your school propaganda
They starve in their splendor
You asked for our comment, I simply will render
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re dying

Now that the longhouses breed superstition
You force us to send our children away
To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions
Forbid them their languages, then further say that
Canada’s history really began
When explorers set sail out of Europe
And stress that the nations of leeches who conquered these lands
Were the biggest, and bravest, and boldest, and best

And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
Of the preachers who lied? And the people who died?
How a nation of patriots returned to their earth?
Where does it tell of the starvation hell?
As the children were herded, and raped and converted?
And how do we rescue the missing and murdered?
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re dying

A few of the conquered have somehow survived
Their blood runs the redder, though genes have been paled
From Arctic Inuvik to Niagara Falls
The wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale
And from Vancouver Island to the Labrador Sea
The white nations fattened while others grew lean
Oh, the tricked and evicted, they know what I mean
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re

The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens
Our life blood is shut up in your papers and banks
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hand
And surprise in your eyes, that we’re lacking in thanks
For the blessings of civilization you brought us
The lessons you’ve taught us, the ruin you’ve wrought us
Oh see what our trust in O Canada got us
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re dying

Now that the pride of the sires needs charity
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws
Now that my life’s to be known as your heritage
Now that even the graves have been robbed
Now that our own chosen way is your novelty
Hands on our hearts; we salute you your victory
Choke on your true white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pity your blindness, oh why can’t you see
How the eagles of war whose wings lend you glory
Are never no more than buzzards and crows
Pushed some wrens from their nest
Stole their eggs, changed their story
The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that she knows
“Aw, what could I do?” say the privileged few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?
My country ’tis of thy people, you’re dying

Buffy Sainte Marie


Upon her return to Piapot Reserve Sainte Marie was officially adopted back into the ‘family’ where she was anointed with the Cree name ‘Medicine Bird Singing’.

As you go through Buffy Sainte Marie’s catalogue of music there is a motif related to the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous people throughout North America as it applies to colonization, greed, outright hypocrisy, environmental destruction and literal genocide. As a result of her outspoken nature, she was suppressed by both the Johnson and Nixon administrations in the United States, which resulted in her music not being played on many U.S. radio stations.

They especially did not want Indigenous people interfering with their complete control of available land and natural resources.”

Buffy Sainte Marie

As much as authorities tried to silence the strong-minded artist, they would not succeed, and to this day Buffy Sainte Marie remains not only active, but extremely relevant. Perhaps more so, because we finally seem to have entered a period where more people are willing to listen.

Fifty-five years after ‘My Country Tis of Thy People, You’re Dying’ was released the combination of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the public outrage associated with the unmarked graves of young boys and girls numbering into the thousands has sparked at least some demand for answers, apology and a system that does not continue to marginalize our First Nations culture. The truth is, widespread awareness and reconciliation is only the first step because the concept of colonization is systemic in our culture; so deeply rooted that it was actually the model of the initial exploration and settlement of the ‘New World’. It is called the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’. This document originated in the 15th century and based on a degree of ‘higher purpose’ early explorers felt they had both the religious and ethical justification to colonize and convert in whatever way necessary, cultures indigenous to whatever lands they were attempting to inhabit, around the world. The point is, this move to colonization was not unique to North America. At the risk of over-explaining, you can draw a straight line between this doctrine, perceived ‘white superiority’ and the effort to essentially kidnap Indigenous children who were perceived to be raised by an inferior culture and attempt to convert them to Catholicism or Christianity in order to save their savage souls.


Once again, I struggle as to where to stop in relation to discussing this horrific reality that, in Canada at least, literally spanned a century of our existence, but in practice had pretty much been happening long before Confederation in 1867. It just wasn’t by government decree. This was not the history we were taught in school. I can still remember my history teacher explaining that in the colonization of the United States, the only good ‘Indian’ was a dead ‘Indian’, whereas in Canada the perception was the opposite. This is no doubt what he was taught. I am not blaming him. The point is for several generations we were led to believe that what we were doing as a nation was acceptable and in the best interest of some form of harmonious relationship. A sort of we need you, but you need us more symbiosis. It was never requested. Promises were made and then broken and for over 150 years native cultures have been marginalized to the point of absolute devastation. The historical trauma from this alone has literally filtered through the generations. This is identified as

…cumulative stress and grief experienced by Aboriginal communities is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss.”

Historical Trauma – Definition

So, the next time someone you know scoffs and says they are tired of the ‘Indians’ getting so much ‘handed’ to them or ‘all they do is take our government handouts and spend it on drugs and alcohol or gamble it away’ ask them how they would feel if their ancestors had literally been kidnapped and murdered, leaving a trail of tears and quite literally erasing their history. The more I type, the more outraged I become, and I was not starting at a very good place.

Imagine how Buffy Sainte Marie felt when she put pen to paper?

I will never even attempt to suggest, I know how she feels. That would be condescending. The promise remains, we need to be better as a country. Much like reconciliation is only step one, so to, is the concept of lowering flags to half-mast. From a personal standpoint, I believe it serves as a constant reminder of a horrific past, but there needs to be a continuation, and a firm commitment.


Consider this comparison of the two major party leaders as we approach the election on September 20.

Prime Minister Trudeau says;

I think Canadians have seen with horror those unmarked graves across the country and realize that what happened decades ago isn’t part of our history, it is an irrefutable part of our present. So, when we decided to bring down those (flags) to half-mast, we made the commitment that we would not raise them again until we have worked enough with Indigenous communities and leadership to make a clear determination that it was time to raise them again.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Erin O’Toole says:

We will then raise our flag as a sign of that commitment of building a strong and better Canada in the future. I’ve said I’m very proud of our country despite the scars from our past. As prime minister, reconciliation will be core to our government.”

Erin O’Toole

In these two statements, I see one leader who is committed to working with our First Nations leaders (albeit slowly) and another who is both attempting to sweep the issue under the carpet like his previous party leaders have done going back to Confederation, while dog-whistling to his supporters that they can go back to turning a blind eye to the issue. As you were…nothing to see here. Let’s just move on. It will sort itself out. Not your problem.

While I am not a huge fan of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the difference in leadership here is palpable. One is willing to stand behind his resolve to improve relations between our Indigenous communities and the other seems content with the idea that if we eliminate any form of constant reminder the problem may just go away. Give me strength.

I will give the final word to Buffy Sainte Marie.

Well, my motto is stay calm and decolonize. For me, the celebration of 150 is the perfect opportunity to continue to decolonize. Decolonizing doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s exactly what everybody needs to do.”

Buffy Sainte Marie

The truth is adjustments need to be instituted at society’s foundation. At present, the colonial system is clearly a house of cards. Unless there is decisive change, it is doomed to fail…over and over again. This has been demonstrated. The only way to make it better is to bring an existing and committed government together with First Nations leaders and build a system that is founded on a degree of autonomy. There is a lot of work to do but saying we will get around to it eventually is not a plan Mr. O’Toole. Stop pretending.

In the meantime, let’s take a page from Buffy Sainte Marie’s philosophy. In her eyes, music and entertainment is designed to make us think. She wants her songs to inform, inspire and educate. She wants her art to move us to a level where we dig deeper. Take her words and fact check in order to understand what drove her to create. Then we need to testify, or advocate on behalf of what is wrong. Most of all, nurture the message, celebrate the positive. Rejoice in the spirit of the song and above all, heal.

We can be better. Music is part of the therapy.

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