A&S alumnus combines environmental consciousness, punk rock and the arts

May 20, 2020 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

For Faculty of Arts & Science alumnus Mike Haliechuk, academics and a love of punk rock have intertwined in an unlikely way. 

“I was becoming an anarchist, environmental punk, hanging out and working in Toronto’s Kensington Market area, and didn’t really know what I wanted to take in university,” says Haliechuk, who earned his honours bachelor of science degree in environmental studies and international studies in 2006 as a member of Innis College. “Environmental studies was the one thing I could think of wanting to take that had a purpose; it was a way I could affect the world and put my politics into my education.” 

The decision ultimately led to Haliechuk developing a deeper, lasting environmental consciousness, co-founding a community-based annual arts festival and diving into Gerstein Science Information Centre library’s surprisingly extensive collection of punk rock books and music. There, he pored over archives that helped inspire the creation of his long-standing, award-winning band, F****d Up, for which he plays guitar, sings and writes.   

“I still consider myself an environmentalist and conscious of environmental issues, and I really did get into it,” he says. He was fascinated by environmental footprints, sustainability and 100-mile diets long before they became fashionable and picked up urban planning concepts through fellow students. 

“A lot of urban planning is close to environmental studies,” he says, pointing to an environmental course taught by late federal NDP leader, Jack Layton, that included an urban planning element. “It was exciting to have a politician — especially someone with my leanings — teach a class, who I had access to and liked and respected.” 

Mike Haliechuk playing his Guitar.
Mike Haliechuk plays guitar in his long-time, award-winning band, F****d Up. Photo: Angela Owens.

Haliechuk took advantage of learning opportunities outside the classroom too, tapping into the wealth of knowledge housed in the stacks of U of T’s libraries. “I was a book-wormy, nerdy kid,” he admits. He dove into old alchemy textbooks and other oddities he found at Robarts Library, and unearthed a goldmine of rare punk books from the 1970s and 1980s in the Gerstein library. 

“The beginning of the band was — I don’t want to say academic, but — certainly very researched. It was very studious and very detail oriented. We were always going somewhere to try to dig information up, like punk archaeology,” he says, recalling digging through the Robarts’ stacks with singer Damian Abraham, with whom he would later form his band.   

The band has since released five studio albums, several EPs, singles and companion releases. The band won the 2009 Polaris Music Prize for its second studio album, The Chemistry of Common Life and has toured the world.  

In 2012, still a touring musician, Haliechuk co-founded Long Winter, a months-long, all-ages, pay-what-you-can inter-arts series that takes place throughout the winter. Featuring over 200 local artists/collectives and welcoming more than 5,000 participants a season, Long Winter is aimed at giving back to the community by inspiring the next generation of artists — whether musicians, dancers or something else altogether.  

Haliechuk has helped organize Long Winter events in the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, in Toronto’s historic Great Hall and even held a concert in the Galleria, a rundown shopping centre in Toronto’s west end that has since been torn down to make way for condos. (The Galleria show was not even the band’s most unusual gig; in 2010, they had played a concert in the middle of the Toronto Reference Library as part of the library’s Make Some Noise series of events.) 

“Long Winter took off really quickly by the second or third year; it was filling the Great Hall and thousands of people were trying to get in. Then we did the Galleria show which was its own crazy thing,” Haliechuk says. 

“We realized the value of Long Winter wasn’t going to be getting the biggest bands or artists but in being a reflection of who was coming. We wanted to attract someone to Long Winter as a 16-year-old who could then perform at it a couple years later in their band’s first show or their first exhibit.” 

Long Winter was put on hold in spring 2020 due to COVID-19, but Haliechuk plans to bring it back next winter. 

“Everything I’m interested in is do-it-yourself, and it has become value-instilled. If I’m going to give my labour to something I want it to be something that has community value.”