The180·THE 180

The problem with Gord Downie's Order of Canada

Clayton Thomas-Muller loves what Gord Downie is doing to raise the profile of aboriginal issues in Canada, but he thinks it's time for Downie to step out of the spotlight. Thomas-Muller explains why, and tells us how non-Indigenous Canadians can be helpful allies.
Gord Downie receives the Order of Canada from Governor General David Johnston in Ottawa. Downie, who announced last year that he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, has become a strong advocate for Indigenous people and issues. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Twenty-nine people were recognized by the Governor General on Monday for their outstanding leadership on Indigenous issues.

Honourees included activist Sylvia Maracle, NHL player Jordin Tootoo and author Jacqueline Guest.

But the person who got the most media coverage was Gord Downie.  

The Tragically Hip frontman was appointed to the Order of Canada after a year of advocating on behalf of residential school survivors and producing a musical project, Secret Path, about Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack - an Ojibwe boy who died escaping residential school.

For Clayton Thomas-Müller, Downie's inclusion in Monday's honourees and his willingness to accept the award are problematic.

If I've learned one thing as an activist it's that we don't need white people to translate our narrative to the mainstream- Clayton  Thomas-Müller

Thomas-Müller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, says at a time of reconciliation the most visible face in the discourse around residential schools and reconciliation should not have been a white rock star.

"There are moments when [non-Indigenous advocates] should step back and push forward the living survivors of Canada's colonial legacy to be the spokespersons, to get the awards, to get the recognition," he said. "They don't need it."

Emotional Gord Downie honoured by AFN

5 years ago
The Tragically Hip lead singer and advocate for First Nations people was hailed at an Assembly of First Nations gathering 3:28

Though Downie has been called an Indigenous allly who is bringing awareness of residential schools to his fans. Thomas-Müller doesn't agree.

"There's a long history in Hollywood and the entertainment industry of non-native allies leveraging their stardom," he says adding that the best allies are willing to step back from the limelight in order to make space for Indigenous voices. 

"The mainstream can take up our narrative without having a non-native intermediary to translate for us.".

He says he knows that because he's seen people listen to Indigenous peoples during everything from Standing Rock to Idle No More.

Thomas-Müller, whose parents survived residential school, says he wants to see more stories about people who persevered in spite of the hardship they faced rather than just tragic ones like Wenjack.

"My challenge to Gord Downie is to lift up the stories of living survivors," he says. "Let's see him push those people forward to stand on the microphone with him standing behind them smiling. And let them tell their story."