‘Finding Their Way Again’: 5 Questions with Matthew Fast

Matthew Fast works with refugee youth in Winnipeg as a mentor and outreach program manager. From 1994-2001, he was the lead singer of the punk rock band The Undecided. The Undecided released two albums on Tooth & Nail Records. His new book, Finding Their Way Again, is about war-affected youth in Winnipeg who have become involved with gangs. You can join Fast at his book launch at McNally Robinson on November 16.

  1. Can you explain a little about the Undecided? How did your friends and family react when you first starting singing punk rock?
    • Hmm…what can I say about The Undecided?? Well, basically we couldn’t agree / decide on a proper name so I half jokingly said, “Hey we should call ourselves The Undecided because we can’t decide on a name,” and due to our lack of inspiration and/or willingness to search any further, that’s the name we stuck with. I think the name kind of sums up nicely what we were. We weren’t ambitious, but we weren’t unambitious either. We were never fully committed to give the music thing a proper go, but at the same time we were sort of half committed to make a go of it. And of course when you’re half committed you’ll only do half as good as you would have liked hahahaha. I think initially my parents reacted as any proper Mennonite parents would have reacted, and that’s with suspicion and a bit of worry. It didn’t take them long to come around and in the end I think they were proud of me (as proud as a Mennonite parent can be without showing too much pride). As far as friends go, I think they liked it, I mean, they came to our shows, but I always wondered when they were singing along and pumping their fists if they were secretly mocking us hahahaha. Either way it looked like they were having a good time.
  2. Do you still write songs or play music?
    • Nope, that ship set sail a while ago.
  3. What inspired you to work with refugee youth in Winnipeg?
    • Well, I think I can trace the roots of that back to my childhood. Growing up we always had neighbours or relatives who had worked overseas with marginalized populations and from a young age I became aware of some of the situations in different countries around the world. Even though I probably wouldn’t have been able to point to those countries on a map at the time I was still aware that somewhere out there “half way around the world” that there were other people out there who didn’t have the basic human needs that I had. Then I think when I was about in grade 6 or so my neighbour (who was also my cousin because we are Mennonite after all) got me into hip hop music. It sounds kind of funny being this Mennonite kid from Kleefeld and all I listened to from that time on even until high school was hip hop. My journey through hip hop music thankfully led me to a group called Public Enemy. Public Enemy was a different sort of hip hop group, they were fiercely political and it was unlike anything I had come across up until that point. These guys were singing about things like the Civil Rights Movement, racism and the plight of African Americans among other things. Although I didn’t quite understand everything they were talking about at the time, I knew that what they were saying was important (if that makes any sense). Then shortly after high school my friend Steve Dueck (yes, also my cousin) invited me to a punk rock show in Winnipeg. Prior to this I had never been to “a show” before, much less a punk rock show. When I walked into the venue it was as if this whole new world had just opened up to me. There was table selling band merchandise, but there was also a guy behind a table selling books which focused on various social issues and causes, then there was another table where people were distributing literature on the oppression of Palestinian people. Then Propagandhi came on and they were singing about workers rights, militarism, structural racism etc. It was information overload, but that show was a pivotal moment in shaping who I am today. Thanks to Propagandhi I was introduced to Noam Chomsky and my first intellectual/social critique type book I ever purchased was Manufacturing Consent.  From there I just became more and more interested in politics and what was happening around the world. When I was about 27 I started my undergrad degree in Politics and International Development Studies at the U of W. Once I began my undergrad degree I moved to Winnipeg which again I think really opened my eyes to the diversity of cultures and religions compared to where I grew up. Through university I became friends with a bunch of people who themselves came to Canada as refugees, but were now working for various newcomer serving organizations or community groups. One these friends encouraged me to volunteer with refugee youth in an after-school program at the place where he was working at the time. I took him up on his offer and I’m so thankful that I did! From there I became more interested and involved with refugee issues and newcomer communities and the rest is history as they say!
  4. Do you see any connection between your music career and the work you do now?
    • As per my answer above, the music I have listened to and which has inspired me has played a huge role in guiding me into the work I do now. As far as the music of The Undecided and a connection to my career now I would say that in my writing whether it was political or otherwise I always wanted my songs to have a particular meaning or purpose and I feel the same about the work that I do. I want my work or my career to have purpose and to be meaningful. I hope in some small way that when people listened to our music, particularly some of the more socially conscious songs, that we were able to make them think and critique the status quo and the world around them
  5. What do you hope people will learn from your book?
    • I hope readers develop a deeper understanding of some of the issues and circumstances which may make refugee youth more susceptible to gang recruitment. We are often quick to judge without knowing or understanding the full story. The kids who are in gangs don’t need us to judge them further, they’ve faced enough judgement and rejection already. Many of these kids want to feel a sense of belonging, they want someone who is willing to listen to their story with openness. I hope readers develop a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for these young people who have often faced very traumatic experiences in their countries of origin. I hope my book brings those things out.