Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil dies at 68
Acclaimed Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil has died at age 68.
A notice on her website states MacNeil died on April 16 following complications from surgery.
Born in Big Pond on Cape Breton Island, MacNeil was one of eight children.
She moved to Toronto at age 17, where she wrote her first song and began singing in folk clubs. MacNeil later moved to Ottawa, where she recorded three albums, but eventually returned to Big Pond, where she formed a trio.
MacNeil was famously shy, but said her parents helped her overcome that trait by constantly reminding her to believe in herself.
“You can be shy,” she said. “You can work through all kinds of struggle. But somewhere deep down, you have to have belief or nothing’s going to happen.”
Cape Breton’s first lady of song made her mark during a six-week run at Expo ’86 in Vancouver. In 1987 she earned a Juno award as most promising female artist, at age 42.
MacNeil recorded 24 albums and sold millions of records over the course of her career.
She hosted a CBC-TV variety program, Rita and Friends, which ran from 1994 to 1997 and drew regular audiences of one million viewers.
MacNeil was a member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of five honorary doctorates.
In 1986 she opened Rita’s Tea Room in her hometown of Big Pond, where she also gave performances.
In 2008, MacNeil said she was shocked to learn she had been investigated by the RCMP in the early 1970s because of her work with the women’s movement. At the time, police were looking for communist connections.
“I had no reason to be under surveillance, believe you me,” she laughed. “I was just the singer.”
Through it all, she kept a positive outlook.
MacNeil inspired a generation of Cape Breton songwriters and performers. She encouraged young singers, even if she wasn’t a fan of their voices.
“Who are we to say ‘if you have a dream, don’t waste your time,'” MacNeil said. “There are different degrees of the dream. Maybe they’ll get to sing in a church or another place that keeps them very happy.”
In Cape Breton, Joella Foulds said MacNeil was an icon. Foulds, the artistic director of the Celtic Colours Music Festival, performed with MacNeil.
“I think I’ve learned that you mustn’t be afraid to express yourself,” Foulds said. “You have to be who you are, and that was the essence of Rita. She was this wonderful, passionate person who had something to say.”