TORONTO — Even without a red carpet, the Juno Awards found ways to march generations of Canadian stars through their 50th anniversary celebration on Sunday night.
From Shania Twain and Celine Dion to Kaytranada and Justin Bieber, many of the country's most successful acts paid tribute to Canada's biggest night in music from a distance, though one of the glaring absences also happened to be the biggest winner.
The Weeknd was named artist of the year while his "After Hours" was named album of the year, but the Toronto superstar didn't show to accept his awards.
He had already won three 2021 Junos at a pre-broadcast ceremony on Friday, picking up best single for "Blinding Lights," best contemporary R&B album for "After Hours" and best songwriter, resulting in a sweep of the top five categories. The triumph followed a surprising snub at the Grammy Awards, and repeats a feat The Weeknd achieved five years ago with his album "Beauty Behind the Madness."
A few other winners were also absent from the Junos golden anniversary where the musical bits were pre-recorded but the acceptance speeches mostly live over webcam.
Shawn Mendes was selected by viewers as the fan choice winner, though he didn't log in to accept his honour.
And even though Justin Bieber performed "Somebody" from Los Angeles in a kaleidoscopic presentation, he didn't turn up when "Changes" won pop album.
A few others did, however, including JP Saxe who was chosen as breakthrough artist. The pop balladeer became a radio favourite last year for the duet "If the World Was Ending," which he performs with his co-writer and girlfriend Julia Michaels.
Saxe thanked his father, his girlfriend and the Toronto music community for being part of his foundation as a young artist.
"This is my homeland validating my music," he told reporters after his acceptance speech.
"If I could tell 15-year-old me playing every open mic he could find in the (Greater Toronto Area) that this was going to happen he'd be pretty stoked too."
Savannah Ré won for traditional R&B/Soul recording for her debut "Solid."
Members of the Tragically Hip were presented with this year’s humanitarian award for decades of philanthropic work. Rush's Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson presented the honour inside Massey Hall, which is still in the midst of an extensive restoration.
Then Gordon Lightfoot introduced Leslie Feist as she joined the Hip to perform vocals on "It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken."
It was the first time the Kingston, Ont., band has performed together since Gord Downie's death in 2017, and it was a decision they didn't make lightly.
Paul Langlois explained that he and his bandmates have been "under pressure" to reunite for various reasons, including a tribute show for Downie. But they've always shied away from the opportunity because he said, "it didn't feel right."
When the Junos asked them to play this year, Langois said they declined at first, until Feist was floated as the vocalist.
"Gord loved Leslie... it felt like it would be different. And honestly, it's a girl, not a guy," he told reporters.
"We felt like we could make it different and we really felt like Leslie would make it her own."
Other highlights of the night included Anne Murray ushering Jann Arden into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, a belated induction that was supposed to happen last year.
Speaking from her East Coast home, Murray reflected on the "Insensitive" singer's compassionate personality.
"Not only is she funny and a fine singer-songwriter, she's also a fine human being," Murray said.
"Any time I've called upon her she's been there for me. She is warm, witty, kind, compassionate and wears her heart on her sleeve."
Arden, who started by joking she was "too young" for the honour, paid tribute to her late mother Joan Richards who died in 2018 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and performed the song "Good Mother."
Underneath the sheen of the Junos celebration was an acknowledgment that Canada is in the midst of a reckoning with its treatment of Indigenous peoples.
Buffy Sainte-Marie opened the show on a sombre note by addressing the recent discovery of what's believed to be the remains of 215 children buried at a former Kamloops, B.C., residential school.
She said while the news may be "shocking to some people and a revelation" it is not surprising to Indigenous people.
"The genocide basic to this country's birth is ongoing and we need to face it together," she added.
"And I ask for your compassion."
Kamloops was acknowledged briefly by the Hip as well as Susan Aglukark, who spoke in Inuktitut to Indigenous families faced with another tragedy.
"We grieve with you and we want you to know that they will not be forgotten," she said.
Kardinal Offishall led viewers through a journey of Canadian hip hop history to mark the 30th anniversary of the rap recording category.
Maestro Fresh Wes made an appearance with "Let Your Backbone Slide" before Michie Mee, Jully Black, Nav and Haviah Mighty who stood in recognition of the generations of artists who've often gone underrecognized at the awards show.
The Junos originally hoped to mark their 50th anniversary at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena, but Ontario's COVID-19 restrictions put an end to that goal. Instead, organizers announced they'll return to Toronto for next year's show.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2021.