September 27, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN
While most of the audience members weren’t even born when Fred Penner first crawled through the log that would help define a generation, they greeted him with an applause that left the Atrium in Conestoga College’s Student Life Centre trembling.
Penner, who emerged from behind a big black curtain with a battered green guitar case in hand and a smile plastered across his bearded face, was visiting the college’s Doon campus to speak and perform at the fifth anniversary of the school’s Respect Campaign on Sept. 26.
While a lot has changed in the 27 years since the iconic musician and children’s entertainer made his debut on CBC’s Fred Penner’s Place, he said his message has remained the same.
“I don’t play to one particular time,” said the 65-year-old Penner. “It’s all about connectivity and positivity and love and co-operation and understanding and respect. It’s about the value of the human spirit.”
It’s a sentiment both college president John Tibbits and Student Life programmer Ryan Connell touched on in the ceremony’s opening speeches.
“The start of intelligence is to understand people,” Tibbits said, stressing the importance of tolerance and acceptance within a learning environment.
“Every interaction you have with someone else gives you the opportunity to make a difference, the opportunity to be the difference,” added Connell, who was instrumental in launching Conestoga’s Respect Campaign in 2007.
Connell said he was thrilled to land Penner as a keynote speaker because of the positive impact he’s had on so many of the college’s current students, about 100 of whom attended the anniversary celebration.
“The lessons he was able to instil in a generation are things we are trying to promote to our student community through the Respect Campaign,” Connell said. “He encompasses the qualities of respect, kindness, sincerity and generosity that we, as people, should all be aspiring towards.”
Despite the positive message of Penner’s music, however, the circumstances which spawned his career were anything but. While he grew up surrounded by music, influenced by everything from classical to opera to the folk movement of the ’60s, it wasn’t until the deaths of his younger sister and his father, about a year apart, that he considered a career in music.
“I was sort of a man standing out in his field, waiting for something to help me figure out where this path was going to go,” Penner said. “I started thinking, ‘What is it in this world that has given me any kind of really positive sensation of understanding and love and creativity? The answer was music.”
It wasn’t long before Penner’s decision to follow his dreams paid off. In 1972, shortly after forming a band, he was offered $75 to play three shows at a downtown hotel in Winnipeg, Man. While he began to etch out a career for himself, Penner said he preferred to focus on the present and never looked much beyond his next gig.
“I never had a long-term plan,” he said. “That’s part of this insanity.”
It was this lack of planning, Penner said, that opened the door to the next major turning point in his life. One night, after a show in Winnipeg, a local doctor and his wife approached Penner and asked him if he’d ever considered making a record. When he told them he hadn’t, they told him they loved his music and offered him a blank cheque to do so.
“And $8,000 later, The Cat Came Back was revealed,” said Penner of his debut album.
Taking risks would become a common theme in Penner’s life; shortly after the release and relative success of The Cat Came Back, CBC contacted him and asked if he was interested in starting a television series. The next thing he knew, Fred Penner’s Place, a show which would span 13 years and almost 1,000 episodes, was born.
Penner said he recognizes the show as not only a launching pad for his career, but also as a platform for him to continue promoting positivity.
“That first generation was the foundation of the work. There is very much a circular pattern, but at the same time it’s progressing,” said Penner, adding that he is currently the busiest he’s been in years.
As for why his message has remained relevant all this time later, as evidenced by his increasing demand to speak at universities and colleges across the country, Penner said it’s because of its basic but universal appeal.
“My material is not about saving the trees, saving the ocean, saving the whales. It’s about saving the human being. Make the human as strong as they possibly can be so they make the right decisions in regards to the universe,” Penner said. “We’re all in this together.”
It is a message Connell hopes got through to the students at Conestoga.
“Fred shared many stories about making an impact in children’s lives, and I think everyone is able to make that same difference in anyone’s life, child or otherwise,” Connell said. “I hope people walked away with the insight that we can never underestimate the importance we can have in somebody’s life.”