Denise Donlon C.M., War Child Canada’s newest Board member, has been a cultural trailblazer since the 1980s. From MuchMusic to Sony Music to CBC Radio, Denise has broken glass ceiling after glass ceiling to become one of the most respected figures on the Canadian cultural landscape. Beyond that, she has been a passionate advocate for multiple causes, including, of course, War Child. She was one of the first leaders to get behind the charity and has been there ever since. I caught up with her recently and she graciously agreed to answer some questions as part of our Culture Wars interview series.
You’ve recently joined the War Child Canada Board but you’ve been involved with the charity for a long time. What was it that drew you to it and what has kept you passionate about it?
I’ve been involved with War Child since the late 90s when I was running MuchMusic. We were doing a lot of social justice work in those days – media literacy programming on Gender issues, racism, HIV/AIDs, the environment etc. But of all the activists that approached me at the time, War Child was the only one for which I literally put my soul on the line. Drs. Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins were completely compelling individuals and before I knew it, I was on a plane with Hip Hop group The Rascalz to Sierra Leone to help film a documentary on conflict diamonds [Musicians in the War Zone]. It was the first of a number of life changing experiences for me and everyone involved. All the artists who engaged in those early days – from David Usher to Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida – have endeavoured to use their powers for good ever since.
You’ve spent a lot of your career at the intersection of culture and politics and activism. Have you ever known a time when that crossover has been as prominent as it is now?
I’m not sure it IS as prominent – at least in terms of artists’ engagement. I was very fortunate to be on the air in the 80’s when there was powerful engagement – Sting was in the Rainforest, REM was campaigning for Greenpeace, Little Steven was singing about SunCity, Geldof was doing Live Aid (for the first time) Bono was leaning on politicians for change (actually he’s still doing that) but I am not hearing the magnitude of protest songs like we did then, despite there being an AMPLE array of worrying situations to sing about. I was on the women’s march this year and all we kept thinking was: ‘this march needs a good song!’ Still, people ARE engaged and there have never been more tools at our fingertips with which to communicate and activate than now. Let’s use them wisely and for the greater good everyone!!
Hip hop and R&B, in particular, seems to have rediscovered a radicalism of earlier decades but rock seems to have lost its edge in comparison (with a few honorable exceptions). Why do you think that is? In a world of Taylor and Ed is there room for a new Clash?
Yes!! Bring it on! I guarantee you the right song will find an audience with fire in their belly for positive change.
As someone who has spent so much time in cultural organizations, how encouraged are you by the #MeToo movement? Do you think real change is coming?
I think there is real change afoot. My worry is that we get weary before systemic change becomes ingrained to the point where there is no danger of sliding back. Inclusion, diversity and respect must be fundamental to our rights and freedoms on every level especially here in North America where we sometimes take them for granted. How can we be a credible voice for women and girls elsewhere if we aren’t vigilant about protecting not only what we’ve already got, but pushing for more equitable systems of justice going forward. I remember a great sign I saw at the Women’s March held by a grandmother which said ‘ Same shit, different century’. Let’s get past that!
Is the music industry ready for its #MeToo movement?
The numbers for female representation in the music industry echo those in the rest of the world. 6.4% of Forbes 500 companies have women CEOs, 14.5% of boards of TSX companies are women. I could go on. It’s a market fail. The more women we have in leadership roles, the less ‘ready’ we’ll have to be for a #MeToo movement.
To this point a lot of the #MeToo movement has been focused on entertainment industries and politics. Do you think it there will be an impact on people in less privileged positions –women working in low paid jobs or the women and girls whose abuse War Child works to address?
There’d better be. Basic human rights and freedoms should not be bound by class or race or economics.
A lot of the activism we are seeing is very focused on change at home – from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to the gender identity battles. How do you think it might be possible to engage artists to effect change in the countries we work in?
War Child Canada has always been a leader in engaging artists in areas of concern. What makes War Child different is that they work to deliver systemic, long term sustainable development. It’s not as simple a ‘sell’ to an artist who may have limited time to fully comprehend the depth of an issue. Therefore, the artists that are attracted to the work of War Child will be deeply committed. War Child will have their focus, their help and their hearts for the long term – which is of the greatest value in the long run.
Finally, does all this high profile activism give you cause for optimism in dark times? Will the kids be alright, do you think?
I think yes! But I had to be taught my optimism and Dr. Samantha Nutt was my teacher. The times I’ve travelled with her to places like the Thai-Burmese Border or Sierra Leone or Northern Uganda, I’ve often felt despair at the enormity of the challenges that people in post conflict countries have endured, and marvel about their incredible courage to go on. It’s a great gift to be able to meet some of the women and children that War Child Canada helps. I’ve seen that out of extreme evil can come the most beautiful love, hope and determination for a brighter future. With that kind of attitude, pessimism is not an option.
**Later this month, Denise will receive the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the 2018 JUNO Awards**