By questioning Canada's past, Gord Downie fought for a better future

Gord Downie, a solo musician, actor, philanthropist, father and frontman for the Tragically Hip, has died following his heroic and very public battle with brain cancer. He was just 53 years old.
Gord Downie died at 53. (CBC Music)

Gord Downie, a solo musician, poet, actor, philanthropist, father and frontman for the Tragically Hip, died last night following his very public battle with brain cancer. He was just 53 years old.

"No dress rehearsal, this is our life," Downie famously sang on "Ahead by a Century," a lyric that transformed into both a life motto and rallying cry in the wake of his diagnosis in May 2016. As he was faced with his own mortality, Downie, determined as ever, set out to have one of the biggest years of his life.

With his memory deteriorating to the point where he couldn't remember his own children's names, yet alone the words to the songs he had sung most of his life, Downie and the Tragically Hip set out on an emotional city-by-city, cross-country farewell tour, which culminated in a televised final show at Kingston's K-Rock Centre. More than 11 million people, nearly a third of the nation, tuned in to see the group say goodbye on its own terms, with many fans calling it a living wake — one last chance to show the band and its frontman how much they were loved.

"I took full advantage of it. I had seven leather suits — and leather is not too cool," Downie told Peter Mansbridge in a rare interview. "But I took my time, I played every other day. So as [...] a singer, it was just heaven on Earth. And all these sorts of provisions were made for me. Just every fantasy I've ever had for a show was coming true."

Remembering Gord Downie

5 years ago
Duration 2:52
Remembering Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip.

Downie, adorned in shimmery leather suits and top hats custom-made specifically for the occasion, put on an awe-inspiring display of showmanship as he powered through his iconic songs, often reading from a teleprompter. Every concert was a greatest-hits performance, but the band also rotated the setlist each night to focus sections on different albums, ensuring no two nights were the same.

"Enjoy those one-night moments," Downie once said of performing to a crowd, a comment that was given extra poignancy considering the ephemeral nature of that tour. "We'll only be here tonight, this bunch of us in this room. Let's try and find some point of transcendence and leap together."

And transcend he did, something that seemed to come naturally. In fact, no other musician has done more for Canada's mythology than Downie, who was inspired by headlines, history books, personal experiences and even a hockey card to paint a picture of a country that was equally fascinating and flawed. Downie's Canada was anything but perfect, but in his attempt to honestly capture it over a 30-year career, he taught a nation how to confront its darkest moments and dare to not repeat them.

While Downie created iconic anthems that celebrate our best moments, such as "Fireworks," about the 1972 Summit Series, a monumental hockey game between Canada and the USSR, he also mined the shadowy depths of his country to create lasting works of art that put the sense of unequivocal Canadian pride into question. From the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard, one of the most infamous miscarriages in the Canadian criminal justice system ("Wheat Kings"), to the FLQ crisis ("Locked in the Trunk of a Car"), to the government's abhorrent treatment of the First Nations ("Good Night Attawapiskat"), Downie challenged us to think about what it truly means to be Canadian.

"I love this country. I love my idea of this country," he told CBC in 2012.

It's that same point of view that would inspire him to speak out for the conditions of Indigenous peoples in the North during the final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, in which he challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in attendance, and the rest of the county to take a closer look at how Indigenous peoples are treated.

"We're in good hands, folks. Real good hands," he said, referring to Trudeau. "He cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore."

It was one of two occasions he took during the evening to stress Canada's need for decolonization, a thought that had clearly been on his mind for some time, but was given a new sense of urgency given his limited time left. He had a platform, and was determined to use it for the right reason. 

"The last 150 years aren't as much worth celebrating as we think," Downie told Mansbridge in that same interview. "But the new 150 years can be years of building an actual nation. Imagine if they were part of us and we them, how incredibly cool it would make us? That's what's missing as we celebrate doughnuts and hockey."

As he stared down death, Downie used his privilege and his exposure to sow the seeds for a better future, one that would include reconciliation and reparations for Canada's First Nations. In a way, it was his birthday present to Canada, even though he knew full well he wouldn't be around to see it come to fruition. Just the thought that he did all he could do in his last days seemed to give him not just a sense of purpose, but also peace.

Next came Secret Path, an album, graphic novel and film that retraced the final steps of Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwe boy who died 50 years ago trying to flee a residential school in Northern Ontario. He also started the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation and, with his brother Mike and the Wenjack family, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

"If this is the last thing I do, I'm happy," he said of Secret Path.

True to his work ethic, Downie told the CBC he also had enough material for up to four records in the vault, even confirming that the Tragically Hip is working on a new record. "To the point where it'll be like, 'Jesus, is that guy not dead yet?'" Downie said, before adding, "Canadians can be funny." Downie recorded the material for Introduce Yerself (out Oct. 27), a 23-song solo album, over two four-day sessions with producer Kevin Drew. Each song was about a person in his life.

Gord Downie talks about music, saying: "Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in." (Photo by Mike Homer; design by Heather Collett/CBC Music)

Downie was born Feb. 6, 1964, to parents Edgar Charles and Lorna Downie and grew up in Amherstview, Ont., just outside Kingston. He met his future Tragically Hip bandmates while attending Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, and started off playing cover songs in bars. As the story goes, the band was discovered at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern by incoming MCA Records vice-president Bruce Dickinson, who offered them a record deal right away. In truth, after hearing them on a compilation CD, Dickinson had flown to Toronto from New York the night before to watch them perform a two-song set at Massey Hall. By the time of the Horseshoe gig the night after, he had already offered them a record deal.

"There was something about Gord's voice that got your attention," he told the National Post.

The band's first full-length album, Up to Here, released in 1989, is still one of its most successful, achieving diamond status in Canada for sales over one million. It features many of the Hip's most iconic songs, such as "Blow at High Dough," "New Orleans is Sinking" and "38 Years Old."

The Hip's next album, Road Apples, released in 1991, solidified the group's status as one of the country's most exciting young bands, and was its first to reach No. 1 on the Canadian charts.

If there was any doubt about the Hip's stature, it was quickly dispelled with the release of Fully Completely one year later, which produced six hit singles: "Locked in the Trunk of a Car," "Fifty Mission Cap," "Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)," "At the Hundredth Meridian," "Looking for a Place to Happen" and "Fully Completely."

To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one.- Gord Downie

Over the band's 30 year career, the Tragically Hip became fondly known as, quite simply, Canada's house band. To date, the Hip have released 14 albums and won numerous awards and honours. The group has won 16 Juno Awards, including six for entertainer or group of the year; in 2012, the city of Kingston named the section in front of its arena the Tragically Hip Way; in 2013, Canada Post featured the Hip on a series of stamps; and in 2017, all members were awarded the Order of Canada, one of the highest honours a civilian can receive in Canada based on merit. Downie was also honoured at the Assembly of First Nations for his work on reconciliation. The Assembly gave Downie a star blanket and eagle feather, bestowing him with the name Wicapi Omani, which means "walks with the stars" in the Lakota language.

At the ceremony, Downie broke down in tears and called for, above all else, reconciliation.

"It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school," he said. "To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives."

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG


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