Manitoba

Manitoba Indigenous leader praises Gord Downie, wants him honoured

Gord Downie's appeal for Canada to address years of neglect of northern First Nations has a Manitoba Indigenous leader saying "God bless you."
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)

Gord Downie's appeal for Canada to address years of neglect of northern First Nations has a Manitoba Indigenous leader saying "God bless you."

But Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents most of northern Manitoba's First Nations, also wants to do something more. She's been talking to other chiefs about how to show the Tragically Hip singer "that we appreciate his care and concern."

"Everything from making him an honorary chief, bringing him to one of our communities for a pow wow, a feast, blanketing him, giving him a headdress, inviting him to a healing ceremony — those kinds of beautiful things that a lot of our Indigenous people do when they want to honour someone," North Wilson said about some ideas that have come up, including giving him an eagle feather and moccasins.
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), told a Saskatoon conference Tuesday that Manitoba has the most racist provincial government in Canada. (CBC)

"So all of these things that our community does when they're appreciative, everything came up. I think it's just beautiful that we even have this opportunity to do that because I think a lot of us fight so hard for justice and just for each other that when we see someone of this person's stature standing up for us it's just so beautiful."

On Saturday, the Tragically Hip singer used a high-profile spotlight — one seen by 11.7 million Canadians —  to advocate for First Nations and single out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the one who will make things better for 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 between songs near the end of a concert that was nationally televised and streamed online.

​"But what's going on up there ain't good. It's maybe worse than it's ever been. It's really, really bad but we're going to figure it out, you're going to figure it out," Downie added, singling out the prime minister.

"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."

Many Indigenous communities have been in the news this year for high suicide rates among young people, crushing poverty and a lack of essentials like clean drinking water.

The community of Cross Lake, Man., also known as Pimicikamak Cree Nation, declared a state of emergency in March 2016 after six young people committed suicide in a three-month period. The community also had 100 other youth on suicide watch.

Because of his concern for northern communities, maybe there is an opportunity to name a lake after Downie, North Wilson said was another suggestion.

"That would be beautiful too and I think that's a really good idea, something significant like that because I hope that someday we all look back and say, 'That's the time, that's the moment that we saw changes and things started happening,'" she said.

​"I like all of [the ideas] but we have to be respectful of him and we don't know what he wants to do on these last days or how long he has so we have to be respectful of that. But I think just as long as he knows that people are talking about him and that his gesture of standing up for us and giving us a voice is just beyond anything that we could do or say."

Downie announced in May that he has an aggressive, incurable form of brain cancer. On Saturday, the band marked the end of their sold-out cross-Canada tour by playing in their hometown of Kingston, Ont.

In a video posted on Facebook, North Wilson sent a message to Downie, first in Cree and then translated in English:

"I want to thank you for your love and care and concern for us. We love you, too. God bless you."

now