Fatherhood essays by famous Canadian dads

We asked four famous Canadian dads — from across the country and from distinctly different walks of life — to share their philosophies on parenting

Dan Hill, father one of and singer, songwriter and author

I came at fatherhood in direct relation to how my father raised us, though I only recognized it in retrospect. My father was an absolute control freak — he tried to control everything we did. Part of that was good because you didn’t have to worry about his lack of attention. But he was also in your space, invading your space and your dignity.

When I became a father, I erred too much in the opposite direction, and took too little control of my son, David, who is now 22. Looking back, I wish I had set up more boundaries, at least within reason.

I’ve tried to lead my son by example. That means I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. There have been times when I did drink, but in my son’s teenage years, I stopped; at least that way I could back it up when I was cautioning him about the dangers of too much alcohol. I also tried to show him the power of creativity and the power of self-expression. David would see me always playing, on the guitar or on the piano. And he’d see me writing, with editor’s notes spread across the table. The Hills are intense people and we work it out through creativity. I remember when David was struggling as a teenager; he asked me whether writing could save his life. I said yes — it had saved my life, and it continues to save my life.

Growing up, whenever my brother or I wanted something, we had to write a letter. If we wanted to raise our allowance or get a Beatles haircut, we had to put it on paper.

I’ve handed this idea down to my son: When he wants something or is unhappy, he writes these long, incredibly erudite letters, as a way of expressing himself, because the written word comes through more lucidly. It taps into a different part of the brain when you write about it.

That’s not to say a creative life is easy. For me, it was often nomadic. That was hard for David because I’d often have to go where the work was, whether working with Britney Spears or Michael Bolton or Céline Dion. I couldn’t be in Toronto: I had to go to Stockholm or Los Angeles or Miami. That was very hard for my son to deal with, and I’ve had to tell him many times that I was sorry I hadn’t been there when important things were happening in school, or when he felt he didn’t fit in because he was of mixed race, just as had been the case with me during the 1960s. I think it’s important as a parent to own up when you have let your children down, and there will always be some point where we fail to meet their expectations — but apologizing makes it easier to process and move through.

Dan Hill chronicled the complexities of father-son relationships in his memoir, I Am My Father’s Son.

Shawn Atleo, father of two and National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

My situation as a parent is coloured by my role as a hereditary chief. From a young age, I was made aware that one day I’d be responsible for helping to care for my people and the land. I went through rite-of-passage ceremonies and naming ceremonies.

I’m now on name number five: A-in-chut is my adult name, which means “everyone depends on you.” Those very same practices and ceremonies have happened for both my children. The community chooses names that envelop them for life and push them toward their potential. My daughter’s name means she’s a young woman of generosity, and my son’s name means he is able to go out and get things for his people. In that regard, the role of parenting isn’t limited to just me or to my wife, Nancy — it is about an extended family. That’s long been a part of our culture.

The last couple of years have brought a lot of change to our family. We took on this adventure of being based in Ottawa thoughtfully because we knew we’d be away from our children and our home. Nancy helps ensure that we get home every couple of months, and she helps facilitate the links with our kids. We’re like a lot of families — we use technology like Skype, emails and texts. Because my son, Tyson, is an elected leader of our band, I occasionally bump into him when our work overlaps. Nancy and I love being in Ottawa, but the disconnect from family is a real challenge.

We feel strongly about keeping in close contact and there’s only so much technology can do.

Accepting his current job meant a relocation to Ottawa that would separate Shawn Atleo and his wife, Nancy, from their two grown children in BC.

Chip Wilson, father of five boys ranging in age from five to 22 and founder of Lululemon Athletica

I had my first two boys — who are now 22 and 21 — when I was younger and didn’t have any money. I was running an international surf, skate and snowboard business, and didn’t spend as much time with them as I wanted, especially as their mother and I were divorced. However, I always tried to keep in contact with them, even when I wasn’t around. I kept a journal through those years, writing what I thought about them each day, from what they were doing at that specific age to my relationship with their mother. And if I couldn’t make a school concert or event, I’d write them a story or tell them something that had a moral involved. When the boys turned 18, I had the journal printed and I gave it to them.

I apply a lot of what I learned from that experience with my younger boys. That’s often a challenge given the demands of the company; the most difficult time was when we were taking the company public and the twins had just been born, so my wife, Shannon, and I had three boys under the age of two. But as the company has grown, I’ve become very good at hiring and surrounding myself with great people who allow me to free up some of my time. I’m probably more flexible now than most fathers are, and certainly more flexible than I was before. It is my choice. Sometimes it isn’t my choice when there’s a board meeting — things like that are hard to move around — but I’m quite flexible outside of that.

When you look at the culture of Lululemon, a lot of it is about being present in the moment. With my first two boys, I’d often be with them, but my mind would be somewhere else. Now, that’s not the case. When I’m with my kids, I’m really with them. It is a muscle that has to be trained; it isn’t easy to do and it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. I can’t say strongly enough that you can’t pretend to be with your children.

Because children are looking to their parents on how to model their lives, the best thing a parent can do is be happy. If it makes parents happy to work and only be with their children some of the time, maybe that is actually better in the long run. I see so many parents who are busy and stressed about dealing with their kids — and I think that rubs off on the kids.

My older boys are part of the business when they aren’t in school, and the younger ones are also involved; I’ll bring them to the stores, and they’ll water the plants and sweep. I pay them a little for it because I’m trying to connect the notion of work and the value of money. Having the boys involved in the business is important — I think it is one of the best places to educate the children. It’s a great place for them to understand how to do a job properly and gain a sense of integrity.

Vancouver’s Chip Wilson balances parenting with his retail empire of more than 130 stores worldwide.

Chris Murphy, father of two, vocalist and bassist for the band Sloan

Rebecca, my wife, comes from the dance world and I come from the music world, but I don’t want my kids to think that life has to be just the arts. My parents handled that well — they were encouraging, but they also told me that while I was good at music, I wasn’t that good and I had to focus on school.

They were right: I’m still a pretty average musician. I really want normal kids, whatever that means. In some ways, I find myself pushing my kids more toward science and things I wasn’t interested in, to make sure they are well-rounded. My older son, Francisco, is quite musical — at three, he can carry a melody. I often wonder at what age a child becomes what they want to be, and not what you want them to be. I guess you just have to be encouraging.

Chris Murphy is a native of Prince Edward Island. His band Sloan released the album The Double Cross in May 2011.