Remembering The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie

The singer, songwriter, and Canadian icon used his final year to make music and promote the cause of reconciliation
gord downie Gord Downie performing songs from Secret Path a year ago today, October 18, 2016. (© Paul Mckinnon | Dreamstime)

Singer, songwriter, poet, and Canadian icon Gord Downie died last night surrounded by his friends and family. The cause was glioblastoma (say glee-oh-blaz-TOH-mah), a rare and incurable form of brain cancer.

He was 53 years old.

Touched many generations of Canadians

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The Tragically Hip in 1993. (Getty Embed)

As the singer for The Tragically Hip since 1984, Downie has long been one of Canada's most beloved musicians and electrifying performers. This has made him important to not only many of your parents, but many of your grandparents as well. (And, no doubt, some of you have been introduced to his music by them.)

But since he was diagnosed with cancer in December 2015, he used much of his time to promote a cause that has touched even the youngest Canadians — Indigenous reconciliation.

Singing our stories

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Downie was known for his high energy performances for his fans. (Getty Embed)

For over three decades, The Tragically Hip was one of Canada's most popular and best rock bands. That alone is something. But Downie's words, often about Canadian perspectives and moments in history, made the band a much deeper part of our country's culture.

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The story of David Milgaard (left) is one of many that Downie introduced to a new audience. (Getty Embed)

Downie sang about David Milgaard, a man from Winnipeg who was jailed for 23 years for a crime he didn't commit. He sang about Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who disappeared the summer after he helped the team win their last Stanley Cup in 1967. He sang about painter Tom Thomson, French explorer of Canada Jacques Cartier, and cities and towns from Toronto to Bobcaygeon. Even when he wasn't singing about a specific person or place, his lyrics often reflected the landscape, weather, and obsessions of his homeland.

At the time, many Canadians were still used to hearing international rock bands singing about American or British culture. Sure, Gord Downie wasn't the first person to sing about Canada. Not at all. But the way in which he did it — passionately, mysteriously, and often — affected his fans powerfully.

In many ways, it made them both more proud and more curious about their own country.

It made The Hip more than just a band.

A powerful final act

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Singing during one of the final Hip shows on August 10, 2016. (Getty Embed)

The Tragically Hip announced that Downie had cancer on May 24, 2016. At the same moment, they said they were going on one last summer tour of the country. Their final show, on August 20, was at an arena in the city where the band was formed: Kingston, Ontario. It was nationally televised and watched by millions.

Shortly after that show, Downie began promoting a cause that was central to his final year: Canada's reconciliation with the Indigenous community. He released a solo album called Secret Path.

secret path
(Simon & Schuster/Arts & Crafts)

Specifically, the record was about Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who died on October 22, 1966. Chanie was trying to escape the residential school he was forced to attend and to return to his home, 400 miles away. But even more importantly, the album was also a plea to address the centuries of crimes committed against Indigenous people by the Canadian government.

In your classroom

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With Chanie Wenjack's sisters, Daisy and Pearl, on July 2, 2017 at WE Day Canada. (Getty Embed)

Downie became a powerful advocate for healing and repairing the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people. And if you look around your classroom, you may find a copy of Secret Path (it was also turned into a graphic novel). Already, students have done projects and performed plays based on it.

Downie helped to spread the word whenever he could, even performing at WE Day for young people. He travelled to Indigenous communities and in December was honoured at the Assembly of First Nations by almost 600 Indigenous chiefs.

They gave him the name Wicapi Omani: "He who walks among the stars."

Remembering his message

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Receiving the Order of Canada on June 19, 2017. (Getty Embed)

Today, Downie has fulfilled the promise of that name. A great many Canadians are feeling his loss. (Including Justin Trudeau, who tearfully said this morning, "We are less as a country without Gordon Downie in it.")

Is that because he was in a really good rock band for thirty years? Sure, it's part of it.

But Gord Downie used his talents to create something that was bigger than a collection of songs. He gave a country a greater sense of itself. He discussed subjects that made many of us uncomfortable in the hope that we could do better. And he managed to make art whose fans span many generations, and many kinds, of Canadians.

Not all of us will have the exact same reason to appreciate Gord Downie today. But the fact that so many of us will have a reason says a lot about what he did with his life.

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  1. When I went 2 we day, he wasn’t here but his family was and also the Wenjack family and they talked… 4 a long time. Their speech was super emotional & sad

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