Indigenous leaders pay tribute to Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie

Indigenous leaders across the country paid tribute to Downie Wednesday, after his death was announced at the age of 53. He had been battling glioblastoma.

Leaders speak of Downie's sincerity, passion, using his platform to bring awareness to Indigenous communties

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, left, is embraced by Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Famed Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was nervous before the ceremony, unsure of where to stand and when to give the tobacco.

The singer, suffering from a terminal form of brain cancer, wanted to do things properly for his naming ceremony. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he remembers telling Downie not to worry.

"He didn't want to make a mistake," said Bellegarde. "He wanted to do things right. He kept asking, 'Where should I stand? Should I say anything? Do I give the tobacco now?"

It was a powerful event in the ballroom of the Hilton Lac Leamy Casino in Gatineau, Que., when Downie was wrapped in a star blanket, handed an eagle feather and bestowed the name of Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for One Who Walks with the Stars. Downie wept during the ceremony which was held in December 2016 during the AFN's annual winter assembly.

Indigenous leaders across the country paid tribute to Downie Wednesday, after his death was announced at the age of 53. He had been battling glioblastoma.

"He felt a great honour and he was really humbled by [the ceremony]," said Bellegarde.

"We told him with the bestowing of his name, in our custom, our tradition, it helps you in this world, but it also helps you in the next world, because your relatives, that is how they'll call you, to come and help and assist you on your journey."

Using his spotlight

During the final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ont. last August, Canada watched as Downie told the nation it was time to get serious about reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

Addressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Downie said Canadians "were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word" of what was happening on northern First Nations.

"And what's going on up there ain't good. It's maybe worse than it's ever been," said Downie that night. "But we're going to get it fixed."

In one of his last musical projects, Downie set out to immortalize and educate the Canadian public about residential schools through the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy from Marten Falls First Nation who was found dead on railroad tracks near Kenora, Ont., in October 1966. Wenjack had left the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and was trying to make it home.

Downie wrote an album, The Secret Path, based on Wenjack's story and the music was included in a film based on a graphic novel about the boy's death.

A foundation was also created in Wenjack's memory and Downie developed a close bond with Wenjack's family and Marten Falls.

Leaders mourn

Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum was drinking his morning coffee and watching the news Wednesday when he found out about Downie's death.

"I was sad that he is gone. He did a lot for our community and for raising [awareness of] the story of Chanie Wenjack," said Achneepineskum.

Downie took the time to get to know Wenjack's extended family and the community as a whole, Achneepineskum said. He was also impressed that Downie made the effort to visit the Ojibway fly-in community, which sits about 450 km northeast of Thunder Bay.

"It is not easy to get here sometimes," said Achneepineskum. "It is difficult and out of the way for him and they acknowledged his efforts to get to know the community, where [Chanie] had come from, to meet the family, find out how they are today, how things went, and you know, get to know ... the real story."

Achneepineskum said Downie was a "down-to-earth" guy who talked about everyday life with the people he met. He said he hopes others will carry on Downie's legacy, in particular his push for true reconciliation.

"I think that he started it and it is up to us to continue, whoever can, continue this talk of  reconciliation," he said. "I wish it would continue."

Nishawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he spoke with the singer's brother Mike Downie Wednesday morning to pass on his condolences.

"I was speaking with Gord's brother to remind each other of Gord's work and his many contributions to the country and the last couple of years to Chanie's family and to the Indigenous community," said Fiddler. "There is a lot to celebrate and I think all of us have a responsibility to carry on the legacy he leaves behind."

Fiddler said he remembered one lighthearted moment he shared with Downie after the naming ceremony. They ended up together in the back halls of convention centre, when Downie said he needed to use the bathroom.

"We couldn't find it and we were walking through kitchens and other areas. I finally found a woman's bathroom and I popped my head in there and made sure it was clear and I told Gord this is the only option he had.

"I stood by the door to make sure no one went in there...He was a guy who wanted to make a difference and he did it with humility and respect."

"I became close to Gord over the last year as we all worked together to challenge the Canadian public to do better with reconciliation efforts with Indigenous peoples; and although we knew this was coming it doesn't make it any easier to deal with the passing of a close friend," said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson. 

"As MKO First Nations we will continue to remember Gord, build on his efforts through his Foundation, and work
to better the lives of our people as his lasting legacy to MKO," she added.

We told him with the bestowing of his name, in our custom, our tradition, it helps you in this world, but it also helps you in the next world, because your relatives, that is how they'll call you, to come and help and assist you on your journey.- Perry Bellegarde

Singer Tanya Tagaq posted a goodbye to Downie on her Facebook page.

"Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for making music and cultivating kindness," posted Tagaq.

Downie "widened the road of reconciliation to include all Canadians," First Nations children's advocate Cindy Blackstock said, adding he used music to reach places words sometimes failed to find.

"May he forever sing and dance among the stars, reminding us all that love in action is reconciliation," said Blackstock. "And may we, the receivers of his gift, take action every day to make the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action a reality."

Bellegarde said Downie's decision to use his microphone to discuss residential schools and reconciliation had an immediate impact on the national dialogue.

"His impact, no question, will live on beyond Gord Downie's time in this world," said Bellegarde. "He is indeed walking amongst the stars now."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him