Jesse Wente says Gord Downie trying to 'bring light' to Indigenous issues

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie says the proceeds of two solo shows just announced on Tuesday will go towards his personal fund to promote Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. CBC Metro Morning columnist Jesse Wente shares his thoughts on that gesture.

Columnist compares Gord Downie to Marlon Brando for standing up for Indigenous people

Jesse Wente tells Metro Morning host Matt Galloway what it means to have Gord Downie raising awareness and funds for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's efforts through the Secret Path project. 5:50

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie says the proceeds of two solo shows just announced on Tuesday will go towards his personal fund to promote Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.

Downie will share the stage, in Ottawa on Oct. 18 and in Toronto on Oct. 21, with family members of Chanie Wenjak, a boy who died 50 years ago trying to escape from a residential school in northern Ontario. 

Chanie's plight is the subject of Downie's new album, Secret Path. The proceeds will go towards what is being called The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation.

Jesse Wente, CBC's Metro Morning columnist, shared his thoughts with Matt Galloway on Downie's activism.

1. How meaningful is it to have someone like Gord Downie call attention to Truth and Reconciliation?

Gord Downie has announced two shows, one in Toronto and another in Ottawa, in support of Secret Path, a project that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young boy who died trying to flee a residential school in 1967.

Immeasurably so. Although I guess we will know more when these things happen and we see what will take place in the weeks and months and years to come. But I think it's immeasurably important. Let's be honest, Matt, besides indigenous people, who is really pushing this agenda on the national stage? The Trudeau government has talked a good game but has yet to back that up with anything substantive, or quite frankly, even moderate change. These issues need all the support they can get. And they need widespread attention, the type of attention a major celebrity, doing exactly what Gord Downie is doing, tends to bring.

It reminded me a lot of when Marlon Brando famously protested the treatment of Indigenous people at the Oscars by sending Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award for The Godfather.

Here's the thing: It's very easy for Indigenous people to feel abandoned here because we have been. And to feel that someone powerful is on your side, that you are not alone, is empowering and encouraging. Marginalized people need allies, allies that are not in it, not for the acknowledgement of being allies, but in it for actual change. These allies, let's be honest, are unlikely to be found in a colonial government or colonial institutions. It is almost always the artists that become the allies of these sort of movements, like Brando or Downie, because art so often leads us. It reflects us while positing a future that we can attempt to achieve.

And for Gord Downie to use this time in his life, to focus on this issue, is amazingly meaningful. If it takes a rock star to move this country on Truth and Reconciliation, then I'll be in the front row with my ticket.

2. It seems that we've seen more celebrities using their platforms to bring attention to social issues and politics in the past while. Why is this happening now?

Gord Downie's new album to be released in October is dedicated to residential school runaway Chanie Wenjack and will be accompanied by an 88-page graphic novel by Jeff Lemire. An animated film, inspired by the music and illustrations will be broadcast on CBC on Oct. 23. (Gord Downie/JeffLemire)

It's a couple of things. The audience is a big thing. I think at least there's a very engaged segment of the audience that is looking for this sort of aspect to their celebrities, to the people that they admire. There's an increasing pressure for celebrities, or an alleviation of pressure not to be political, that it's more acceptable for celebrities to use their platform for social engagement on this level, and that the audience is much more accepting of this than they would be 20, 30, 40 years ago. And this may be a byproduct of social media, where there is a greater expectation of access to celebrities' private lives and thus their beliefs, political or otherwise.

I also think the big contributor to this is the loss of the risk.

When I talk about Brando, Brando was Brando, I mean, he was the biggest star in the world at that point. He was beyond criticism that would have damaged his career. Ditto Gord Downie. Gord Downie at this stage in his career, nothing you say against him can harm him, professionally. In a bygone era, speaking out like this was considered a risk to your career as an artist. Artists tended to keep their politics separate or closed. You wouldn't express these sort of things in public because it might mean you would lose fans. That risk is much, much, much less now than it has ever been in entertainment history. It's much more freeing for people to actually speak out on this. 

With Indigenous issues in general, we don't often see this, which I think is a reflection of where these issues stand in the larger public consciousness and the notion that these may be unsolvable. I think a lot of these issues, for a lot of people, seem so immense that even to bring them up without a solution, is daunting.

I think what Gord Downie is doing is trying to bring light onto it and trying to push the people who could help make a solution do that. Colonalism works both ways. It miseducates everyone in order to advance its central narratives. Issues around First Nations are perhaps the most obscured in our society, and Canada, as a country, has actively been obscuring these issues for 150 years. It will take artists to bring them light to these subjects.

3. I understand you had a chance to meet Gord Downie during the Toronto International Film Festival. What happened? 
Jesse Wente talks about meeting Gord Downie at TIFF, and thanking him for his latest project about a boy who died trying to escape a residential school. 0:53

I got on a crowded elevator in the midst of the festival in part to say hi to a filmmaker friend of mine riding there and because I needed to get to my office. Behind her was standing a tall man in a baseball cap trying to look at the floor and not be noticed. I instantly him recognized as Gord Downie. It turns out my filmmaker friend was up north shooting this film, Secret Path, that is going to be out later this month. So we stepped off the elevator and I shook his hand and I said "Chi Miigwetch" which in my language means thank you very much. It technically means big thank you.

He asked me where I was from, I said Toronto, but my people are from Serpent River. He said "Miigwetch" to me, and we hugged tightly, like family. And you know, this is a moment the country needs. And I will be eternally grateful to be able to thank him personally for all he has done.