38 Years Old references


"...Twelve men broke loose in '73
From Millhaven maximum security"

"...See my sister got raped, so a man got killed
Local boy went to prison, man's buried on the hill
Folks went back to normal when they closed the case
But they still stare at their shoes when they pass our place."

Although a fictional story about a fictional rape, revenge killing and jailbreak, "38 Years Old" does reference an actual correctional institution.

Millhaven maximum security is part of Corrections Canada's federal penitentiary network, and was built in the panoptic style. Panoptic prisons are designed to subconsciously create a safe and stable environment by ensuring that guard towers, look-outs and cells are constructed in such a way that guards can monitor individual prisoners, but prisoners can't tell when or from where they are being watched. This system of surveillance is based on the idea that if human beings believe they are being monitored, whether they can prove it or not, they'll act accordingly.

The prison was opened earlier than expected following a 1971 riot at the 170 year old Kingston Penitentiary. I can tell you personally that they DO NOT appreciate it when lowly Hip fans attempt to take photographs of the prison. It is apparently against the law to photograph federal institutions while standing on their property... who knew?

Millhaven is located in Bath, Ontario, a town just outside Kingston that is also home to a vintage house The Tragically Hip converted into a recording studio.

"... Seems the Mounties had a summertime war to wage"

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are Canada's federal police force. The are known colloquially across the country as Mounties. Historically, they played a large role in settling and policing the West, including the displacement of Indigenous peoples and transportation of their children to residential schools. Rumour has it that they always get their man.

"...They mostly came from towns with long French names"

Plantagenet, Ontario? Sault-Ste Marie, Ontario? St. Bruno De Kamoraska, Quebec?

"...Pulled back the curtains for my older brother Mike"

If a song ever hit a little too close to home, it was this one. Gord Downie does have a brother named Mike. He's a documentary film maker whose work has appeared on the Life Network and the CBC. Mike also directed the Hip's 1999 "Bobcaygeon" music video. He is certainly not in prison, nor has a tragedy such as the one explained in "38 Years Old" ever befallen the Downie family. Some folks took the song seriously however and began leaving things on the porch of the Downie family home in Kingston. The Downie's kept experiencing unwarranted and unwanted attention from literal believers of the song. As a result, "38 Years Old" was very rarely played live for many years. It made a surprise reappearance at Toronto's Fort York in June of 2006.

Hip Head George believes the song may be based on an actual jailbreak which occurred a year before the fictional tale told in song. He's put together a pretty great visual here of images and news clippings set to the song.