Guitars for Vets: Sean McCann hopes to help homeless veterans with healing power of music

Estimates suggest that there could be at least 2,300 Canadian veterans living on the street in 2017. That’s not a statistic to celebrate in this anniversary year. And while the federal government has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to help soldiers battling mental health issues, those vets who have slipped through the cracks are hard to find and harder to save.

That’s where VETS Canada comes in with its plan to use guitars as a way to bring homeless military vets in from the cold. So far they have handed out and helped about 800 veterans and former members of the RCMP cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues with the power of music. But they need another 700 to meet demand. And that’s where Séan McCann comes in.

McCann, the former member of the Newfoundland-based group Great Big Sea, knows how music can heal a troubled soul. It certainly saved him, he says. And now as the National Ambassador for Guitars for Vets, he’s organized a benefit concert at the Algonquin Commons Theatre on Nov. 10 to help find those much need 700 guitars.

The show will also feature three of his very close music friends, Joel Plaskett, who produced Séan’s solo album Help Your Self in 2014; Ottawa’s Jeremy Fisher, who produced McCann’s most recent CD, There’s a Place; and singer-songwriter, activist and friend Sarah Harmer.

Right now there are just more than 200 tickets sold in the hall that seats 700 so McCann is beating a drum to get the word out about a cause he really believes in.

The work started 16 months ago when, he says, he was approached by the founders of VETS Canada, Jim and Debbie Lowther.

Lowther is a veteran who has battled PTSD. He founded VETS Canada after returning home from active duty. The goal of the organization is to help rescue homeless veterans or at least help them cope with life on the street.

Lowther discovered the healing power of a guitar when he picked one up one day and started strumming.

“Jim told me that when he picked up the guitar, he was at his lowest point and he just started to strum it. For 15 minutes it broke the cycle of despair. For 15 minutes he felt no pain. That is the interruption that can save a life. It can prevent suicide,” McCann said in an interview conducted while he was on his way from his current home in Manotick, Ontario, to a fundraiser for a detox centre in Lindsay, Ontario recently.

McCann’s own guitar, which he calls ‘Old Brown’, saved him, he says. It gave him the means to survive addiction, withdrawal and the pain of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest many years ago.

“That guitar saved me. I’m not a military man, I’m a pacifist, but everyone I’ve met in the  Armed Forces are all pacifists. They want peace.”

When Lowther reached out to McCann, he invited Sean to join him on a “boots-on-the-ground” walk.

“That is where they go out on the street and find homeless veterans,” he said. “No one is doing what Jim and Debbie’s group is doing. They are looking for lost people, someone in crisis.

“The first night we went out, we found two vets in Ottawa. I put socks on one guy’s feet. Once they are off the radar, they are gone and they can’t get back. They need help,” McCann says.

“Programs are useless unless you can find these guys. In Jim’s case, they started bringing vets to their home in Dartmouth (Nova Scotia). Now they have some money to get them off the street, sobered up and back into the system.”

The Lowthers started Guitars for Vets which provides each person they rescue with a guitar. They  introduce them to other veterans who are learning how to play. It’s peer-to-peer support and it works.”

McCann wanted to do more so he asked Lowther “what else could I do to help.”

They needed more and better guitars, he was told. They had handed out about 800 donated guitars but they vary in quality.

“So they also needed a certain standard of quality.”

McCann knows guitars and he knows the dealers.

“We found a $100 guitar through Long and McQuade that can accessed anywhere in Canada. Now we need to raise enough money to give Lowther another 700 guitars.”

That would be the concert. But selling tickets has been a struggle.

McCann started with the idea that the Department of National Defence would help him get the word out, but that has been a frustrating failure so far.

“We got bogged down. DND’s system is preventing them even though the people want to help.”

He also struggled to find a venue. He started with the National Arts Centre but finding a date proved complicated and the cost eventually proved prohibitive.

That’s when Algonquin College stepped in.

“Algonquin opened their doors for next to nothing for us last May because they want us there. They see the value of the idea and they care about the issue. I’m really proud of them for that.”

Every ticket sold will give a veteran a guitar and some lessons, he says.

The show will be a songwriters circle featuring McCann, Harmer, Plaskett and Fisher. McCann says some veterans might be coaxed on stage but “most of them are starting from zero and they have PTSD. They are scared so I can’t guarantee they will show up.”

McCann is doing this because he feels the need to give back.

“I believe that I have been lucky, that I have survived. I’ve been in recovery for six years now and I’m feeling really strong. I’m really lucky I have people who love me.

“I know what it is like to be stuck and to be F’d up. I still love singing and that’s still the best version of me. I’m driving today to do a show and melt that room. That’s my meeting. I don’t go to AA, I do a show. But I need to do it once a week or I get in trouble.”

McCann is pretty sure that people will fill the hall once they know about the show so he’s getting the word out.

“It’s time to sell some tickets. Let’s fix it. Let’s help these people. Anything less than a sellout for me is not enough. It should be a no-brainer. We all thought this would be an easy one and it’s been the hardest one in my career. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not a quitter. I’ve quit drinking, smoking and using drugs but I’m done quitting.

“When things are hardest that’s when I keep fighting.”

Guitars for Vets
Featuring Séan McCann, Sarah Harmer, Joel Plaskett and Jeremy Fisher
Where: Algonquin Commons Theatre
When: Nov. 10 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and more information:
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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.