Thunder Bay

'Words cannot express our sorrow': Northern Ontario First Nations mourn passing of Gord Downie

A treaty organization that represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario says it is mourning the death of Canadian musician Gord Downie.

Downie's Secret Path brought attention to history of residential schools and death of Chanie Wenjack

"Words cannot express our sorrow" Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aki Nation, said of Gord Downie's death on Tuesday night. (Alvin Fiddler)

A treaty organization that represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario, including one with a close connection to the iconic singer, says it is mourning the death of Canadian musician Gord Downie.

The Tragically Hip frontman died Tuesday night at age 53, from an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.

"Even though we knew this day was coming, it still was just a tremendnous sadness and just a sense of loss that he's gone," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told CBC News Wednesday afternoon, of hearing about the musician's death earlier in the day.

"Words cannot express our sorrow and our thoughts and prayers are with Gord's brothers Mike and Patrick, and all of their family and friends," Fiddler stated in a statement issued Wednesday morning. "My dear friend took the country by storm last year with his heartfelt call to action, and exposed dark truths about this country like no one before him."

In his final months, Downie used his celebrity to speak out in support of Canada's Indigenous peoples, declaring "Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are."

His Secret Path project highlighted the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home, on foot, from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., in 1966.

His body was found along railroad tracks, approximately 60 kilometres from the school. He was attempting to make the 1,000 kilometre journey home to his community of Ogoki Post, also known as Marten Falls First Nation.

The release of Secret Path commemorated 50-years since the tragedy.

The fact that Downie used the Tragically Hip's final concert to bring awareness to Indigenous issues "really meant a lot," Fiddler said, but added what also struck him was that Downie travelled north to visit Chanie's family and community.

"That he was able to follow through with action ... even though he was ill by that time, the fact that he made that effort ... added to what he said," Fiddler said.
Gord Downie's multi-media project, Secret Path, told the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack.

Secret Path included a solo album, a graphic novel and an animated film to honour Wenjack's memory and educate other Canadians about what happened.

"I have been deeply moved by Gord's work with the Wenjack family to bring the history of the Indian Residential School system to a national audience," Fiddler's statement continued. "Gord restored the dignity and innocence of a little boy who only wanted to go home, and we have been humbled by his determination to share the story of Chanie and all of our youth who never made it home."

"We will forever be touched by Gord's compassion and commitment to guide us along the path to reconciliation. Gord knew this wouldn't be easy, but I pray that my friend has inspired us all to get moving."

Downie launched the project on Sept. 9, 2016, in Marten Falls, which is about 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.

A fund was also established in Downie's and Wenjack's names to aid in reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.

National recognition

Downie was also honoured for his work on Secret Path by the Assembly of First Nations, the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada.

He was given the Lakota spirit name "Wicapi Omani" or "He Who Walks Amongst the Stars," at the national assembly in December, 2016.

On Wednesday, National Chief Perry Bellegarde honoured Downie's memory "as an artist and advocate who made a great personal effort to advance reconciliation and raise awareness of First Nations issues in Canada," according to a written release.

"I honour the life and work of Gord Downie, a dedicated and accomplished artist who used his profile to advance reconciliation and build support for First Nations peoples," Bellegarde was quoted as saying. "This was a tremendous personal effort on his part, one that illustrates his commitment to justice and his belief that every Canadian has a role to play in reconciliation."

As for the man behind the lyrics that meant so much to many people, Fiddler said he knew Downie as "quiet and humble."

"People see this rock star and that's not really how I found him to be in private," he said.

With files from Jody Porter and John Mazerolle