Manitoba

Attawapiskat chief wants to honour Gord Downie in person on northern First Nation

When Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie took a moment between songs Saturday to talk about Canada’s history of neglect and mistreatment of northern First Nations, his words struck a chord with Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh.

Honouring Hip frontman in James Bay community would boost spirits of youth, Chief Shisheesh says

On Saturday, Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie used a high-profile spotlight — one seen by 11.7 million Canadians — to advocate for First Nations communities in northern Canada. (Canadian Press)

When Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie took a moment between songs Saturday to talk about Canada's history of neglect and mistreatment of northern First Nations, his words struck a chord with Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh.

"Our young people have suffered so much, a lot of them tried to commit suicide," Shisheesh said, referring to a state of emergency that was issued earlier this year after scores of suicide attempts in the northern Ontario community.

Downie announced in May that he was living with terminal brain cancer and would be embarking on the Man Machine Poem tour in the summer, which could be the band's last.

During the final show of the tour in Kingston, Ont., Saturday, Downie said he was confident Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could help improve conditions in northern First Nations.

"He cares about the people way up north, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore — trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what's going on up there," Downie said near the end of a concert that was viewed by more than 11 million people on television and online.

"You know, Prime Minister Trudeau's got me; his work with First Nations. He's got everybody. He's going to take us where we need to go."

'He's going to take us where we need to go,' says Hip frontman during Saturday's concert in Kingston 0:50

That statement resonated with Shisheesh, who said it's clear based on the Hip's song "Goodnight  Attawapiskat" that "Gord has always had a special place in his heart" for the community.

"It's a beautiful song," Shisheesh says. He thanked Downie for the tribute and his words on stage in a video posted online Monday.

Shisheesh said he was grateful for Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, and other chiefs of the north who started talking about different ways they could honour Downie in the days after the Kingston show.

While having a formal ceremony in Ottawa, holding a powwow, making him an honorary chief or hosting a healing ceremony further south would all be great gestures of gratitude, Shisheesh says his dream would be to have Downie visit Attawapiskat and honour him right there in the community.

"We could do this in Attawapiskat because he wrote this song for our community. It is fitting for us, our wishes to organize the honorary ceremony," Shisheesh said, adding he plans to reach out to other northern First Nation chiefs in Ontario and Manitoba in the coming days to see what they think of the idea.

Shisheesh said Downie's presence would also help boost morale on the First Nation — especially with younger people.

"Our youth here in Attawapiskat have gone through so much…. What an exciting event it would be for our youth [and make] them [feel] special and recognized," Shisheesh said.

Several states of emergency have been issued in Attawapiskat related to overcrowding and poor housing, as well as a suicide crisis that overtook the First Nation in April.

Shisheesh said he also hopes the prime minister visits "the city by the bay" soon to see first hand some of the challenges facing people in the north.

"We're still waiting," Shisheesh said. "I know that he was on fire when he got in as the prime minister. Now ... the honeymoon is starting to be over."