Yukoners remember singing icon’s visit
Whether she was receiving the Order of Canada, bringing her unique voice to fans on stage,
MEETING A CANADIAN LEGEND – George Green (left) and Elinore Frederickson (right) were pleased to have Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil perform in Whitehorse in 2009.
Whether she was receiving the Order of Canada, bringing her unique voice to fans on stage, appearing on an episode of the Trailer Park Boys or just speaking to a fan she met outside an Eaton’s store in Ottawa, Rita MacNeil is being remembered for her kindness and humility.
The 68-year-old Cape Breton folk singer who died earlier this week only spent a day in the territory, but it was enough to make a significant mark on many who met her.
“She was exactly how you’d expect,” Whitehorse resident George Green said in an interview Thursday.
He recalled meeting the beloved singer in 2009, when she visited the territory to perform for those attending a national conference of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.
At the time, Green was the executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of the Yukon, which hosted the three-day event.
With 32 speakers coming from around the world to address some rather serious issues, Green said it was important to have the opportunity for delegates to take in some quality entertainment as well.
“We found Rita,” Green said, recalling the difficulty that came initially when he was dealing with her manager.
As arrangements continued to be made, Green ended up dealing with MacNeil’s son, who often dealt with the business side of his mother’s career. From there, it was “smooth sailing” to have her perform at the High Country Inn convention centre, Green said.
“She was a darling,” he said.
He was asked to drive her from the airport to her hotel when she arrived in the city, and at the time she wasn’t well, as she was dealing with asthma. On the way downtown from the airport, Green wondered if she’d be able to perform.
Although she was ailing, Green said she was exactly the humble, down-to-Earth person he had seen and heard about.
After arriving at the hotel, they had a cup of tea before Green left.
That night – despite her asthma and other health concerns – MacNeil took to the stage and sang the most beautiful version of her signature song Working Man Green says he’d ever heard.
It’s his favourite Rita MacNeil effort, and perhaps the song she’s best known for.
When MacNeil guest-starred on the Trailer Park Boys, they aptly titled the episode Workin’ Man. The story line saw the boys take her tour bus hostage, then force her and the band to harvest marijuana.
A number of actors who worked on the episode have tweeted their condolences, remembering the fun they had on set with the Canadian icon.
Others, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to singer Anne Murray to the National Music Centre, have expressed their sorrow on social media, remembering the humble performer as well.
As Green commented, she would be the same person whether she was sitting next to the prime minister or a neighbour.
“She definitely had that charm,” he said.
In Whitehorse, it took next to no time for her show to sell out.
“And she gave a command performance,” Green recalled.
It wasn’t just a great performance fans were treated too. Despite her exhaustion following the show, MacNeil told Green to give her 20 minutes, and she’d be back to meet fans who wanted their CDs signed.
Anyone looking for MacNeil’s autograph and to speak with the singer was able to that night.
And even earlier, during the break in her show, she met a woman who had made her mukluks as well as two fans who had come from Old Crow and Dawson City to see her.
“Rita took time out (for her fans),” Green said.
It was probably after midnight before MacNeil had finished meeting with all her eager fans.
The next morning, Green took on the role of chauffeur again – picking up MacNeil at around 5:30 a.m. for a drive to show her around the city before making sure she made her flight out of the territory.
As Green remembers, MacNeil said she’d love to come for a longer visit to the territory sometime. Sadly, that never took place.
It was Elinore Frederickson who encouraged Green to try to get MacNeil here for the show.
The former president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada had met MacNeil years earlier in Ottawa, while she was there for meetings.
She was a fan already after having watched MacNeil’s breakout performances in Vancouver at Expo ’86.
After seeing her there once, Frederickson kept going back night after night to hear MacNeil sing.
The Yukoner introduced herself and, as always, MacNeil took time out for one of her fans, telling her about a show she had that night in Ottawa.
“She was just kind,” Frederickson told the Star this week. “It was like meeting your best friend.”
Over the years, Frederickson and MacNeil stayed in touch.
Frederickson said whenever she’d write to MacNeil, the singer would always reply, and not with the standard letter to fans many performers have. It was always a handwritten note from MacNeil herself, Frederickson said.
So when a performer had to be found for the national convention in Whitehorse, MacNeil was the first person Frederickson thought of, and made the suggestion. It was apparently meant to be because MacNeil was completely booked at that time – except for that weekend.
Both Frederickson and Green noted MacNeil’s contributions extend throughout the country.
“She was always a proud, proud Canadian,” Frederickson said. “It just exuded from her.”
Her pride in being from Cape Breton was also evident in her music, which largely focused on the region.
As Frederickson noted, MacNeil’s music helped get eastern Canada recognized in the west. And all around the world, people knew her music.
In the 1990s, MacNeil hosted Rita and Friends, a variety show on CBC that brought her music to the country, along with a career that included 24 CDs and countless performances that began in Toronto after she moved there at the age of 17.
Coming from a family of eight children, she later moved back to her hometown of Big Pond, Cape Breton.
And there was also her tea. Fans who came to Big Pond could visit Rita’s Tea Room, where she was known to freqently answer the phone herself.
Frederickson made the pilgrimage with her mother, enjoying the tea, scones and sweets offered there.
MacNeil was away on tour at the time, but Frederickson and her mother enjoyed the atmosphere.
“It was just delightful,” Frederickson said, noting that she purchased a can of tea from the tearoom that MacNeil signed while she was here.
News of MacNeil’s passing earlier this week was met with sadness by both Frederickson and Green.
Green noted that although he only spent a short time with MacNeil, he felt almost like he had learned that a family member had passed away.
“It was pretty tough,” Frederickson said, adding she had to turn off the radio upon learning the news, which took a while to sink in.
A service for the singer is planned for Monday at St. Mary’s Parish just up the road from her home in Big Pond.
A decision hasn’t been made yet on whether it will be open to the public and media.
The singer died from post-surgery complications which haven’t been publicly specified.