Gord Downie remembered in 'the Paris of the Prairies'

Gord Downie, known for his enduring lyrics and captivating stage presence, had an incurable form of brain cancer.

Saskatoon tribute band The 100th Meridian will play show in Downie's honour

Gord Downie, who died at the age of 53 on Tuesday, created lasting memories for many Canadians. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Even though fans of Gord Downie knew this day was coming, they still described the musician's death at 53 as a shock.

Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip known for his enduring lyrics and captivating stage presence, died Tuesday.

He had an incurable form of brain cancer. He told Canadians of his condition in May 2016, before the Tragically Hip embarked on their final tour, ending with a concert in Kingston on Aug. 20, broadcast by CBC.

"We all knew this day was coming, but it's still a huge shock and I don't think anyone can be prepared to lose a Canadian icon such as Gord Downie," said Leot Hanson, who runs The Capitol music club in Saskatoon.

"If you are Canadian, then we don't have to tell you how much Gord and The Hip meant to our culture, art and history."

The 100th Meridian, a Saskatoon-based Tragically Hip tribute band, will be playing a concert at The Capitol Saturday evening. The show was planned weeks in advance, and just happens to fall on the week of Downie's death.

The 100th Meridian, a tribute to The Tragically Hip, is based in Saskatoon. They will play a concert at The Capitol Saturday night. (Submitted by 100th Meridian )

"Last year we were given a kick in the stomach with Gord Downie's diagnosis," said vocalist Rob McCarthy.

"Obviously, the whole country tried to prepare, but I don't know how well we did."

For McCarthy, like many other Canadians, Downie's draw was his ability to put Canada into song.

"The platform he stood on, and delivered so many deep, meaningful messages to the country. All his songs contained Canada's history. It spoke to me from day one," said McCarthy.

Canada's secret

Gord Downie, centre, and Gord Sinclair of The Tragically Hip perform on Aug. 10, 2016, in Toronto. (Arthur Mola/Invision/The Associated Press)
Troy Weppler watched Gord Downie perform with The Hip, as they're known to their fans, over 30 times, including during the first stop of their final Man Machine Poem tour.

Wednesday morning, he woke up feeling "sad, grateful and a little angry, too."

"That anger you feel when cancer rips someone from your life, as has happened to all of us too many times. Grateful for all the memories and all the shows, and all the people I've met along the way," he said.

Weppler saw the band in Las Vegas several times.

"There was a line of Canadians snaking through the casino floor, chanting, and Americans would walk by and ask 'Who's playing tonight?'"

When Weppler told them it was the Tragically Hip, the American tourists seemed not to know the band.

"We [Canadians] would look at each other and think 'That's OK.'"

Beyond The Hip

In his final months, Downie ramped up his advocacy efforts in support of reconciliation, and called on Canadians to recognize the ongoing struggle of the country's Indigenous people.

He released Secret Path, a project that told the story of Chanie Qenjack, a 12-year-old who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont. He also founded a charitiy associated with the project.
Musician Gord Downie meets with Chanie Wenjack's sister Pearl Achneepineskum at the airport in Ogoki Post (Marten Falls First Nation) in northwestern Ontario. (Secret Path)

The project resonated with Aaron Adair, a musician and secondary school teacher based in Saskatoon. On Tuesday, he spoke to his Grade 12 English literature class about Downie, his poetry and his activisim.

"It was a feeling that there was this very purposeful coincidence," said Adair, who also created his own tribute to Downie in a retrospective on his blog, ranking every Tragically Hip album.

"I wanted to connect and reconnect to the music. Even hearing certain albums, you could hear the evolution of his singing and his lyrics," said Adair.

Downie fits into more than Saskatchewan's English curriculum. There is a heavy focus in schools on reconciliation, and Adair took advantage of the teaching opportunity on Wednesday, after Downie's death was announced.

"I showed my classes videos of him being honoured by the Assembly of First Nations," said Adair.

"He would've been very proud to know we're talking about these things in class."


Bridget Yard is a journalist and content creator based in the Greater Toronto Area. Originally from Schumacher, a small mining community in northern Ontario, she spent a decade pursuing a career in journalism close to home, then in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan with CBC.