Gord Downie, leading singer of The Tragically Hip and probably the best loved man in Canada, left us last night.
Downie and his brothers in arms — Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay and Paul Langlois —announced his diagnosis of glioblastoma in May 2016. At that point, Downie had undergone treatment and surgery to combat the aggressive, unmerciful and incurable brain tumor.
The band announced two things that day: Downie’s illness and a small, 15-date Canada-only tour in conjunction with its latest album, “Man Machine Poem,” to kick off in Victoria a few weeks later. The album itself was released in June.
By now, most of us know well the story of the Tragically Hip. Founded in Kingston, Ontario, in 1984, while Baker and Sinclair were students at Kingston College. Downie and Fay joined later, and the groups’ longstanding lineup was complete with the addition of Langlois in 1986, the same year one-time saxophonist Davis Manning left. The band released 14 studio albums, two live albums, an EP, 54 singles; they won 16 Juno Awards and have been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and were presented with honourary fellowships from the Royal Conservatory of Music. They were named the Group of the Year at the 2017 Junos.
“No dress rehearsal — This is OUR life”
The Tragically Hip opened the K-ROCK Centre in Kingston in February 2008; it was more than fitting that the K-ROCK Centre and nearby Spring Market Square hosted their final concert together. It was a concert that lasted nearly three hours, divided into three segments – as had all other dates on the Man Machine Poem tour—and started with the band huddled together on the stage. While they eventually took their “regular” places across the floor, the view of the five of them, standing close together with Downie in the middle, was beautiful: it’s as if the first portion of each evening’s performance was for them, they just let the rest of us listen in.
The CBC’s broadcast of the Kingston show, preempting one of the last days of the 2016 Summer Olympics, was available online and on the radio, was enjoyed by some 11.7 million people in Canada alone, a number that doesn’t include the dozens, if not hundreds, of viewing parties around the world.
Other than the dazzling suits and those glorious hats, the only indication that anything was different about this particular tour was invisible to most of the audience. The monitors scattered around the stage to help Downie remember the words of the songs we all know by heart.
Throughout their tour, fans and the band alike reveled in the artistry and power of the Hip’s music. But the work that meant the most to Downie was yet to come.
The Secret Path and the Wenjack Family
In October 2016 he released The Secret Path. It was an album and graphic novel retelling the sad story of Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) First Nations boy who was taken from his family to live at a residential school in Kenora, Ontario. Chanie eventually ran away from the school and started walking home. He didn’t realize he was hundreds of kilometers away from his family and later froze to death. The project, The Secret Path, was part of Downie’s larger work on reconciliation between First Nations and the Canadian government.
It was his dedication and devotion to reconciliation that brought him close to the Wenjack family, especially Chanie’s sister Pearl, and First Nations organizations. In December 2016, Downie was celebrated by the Assembly of First Nations, giving him the name “Man who Walks Among the Stars.”
That is especially true today.
Downie and the rest of the Hip have been given the Order of Canada. This is in recognition of their 30-year career in music and their widely-accepted place as the nation’s band.
Fans’ devotion to Downie and the Hip resulted in record donations to several charities established in his honour, including the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, which received more than $265,000 in donations throughout the length of the Man Machine Poem tour. Another, the Gord Down & Chanie Wenjack Fund, dedicated to reconciliation and education efforts, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, while the Courage for Gord group, a fan-run organization, raised more than $175,000 between the news of Downie’s illness and May 2017. All the funds raised by that organization is donated to the brain cancer research fund, the Downie Wenjack fund and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Downie said he wanted to spend the rest of his life in a cabin near the Wenjack family. It’s unknown whether that cabin was built.
Band together in love
Gord Downie, Canada’s beloved poet and “hoser intellectual,” will be loved and remembered by millions. His family, including his four children with wife Laura Leigh Usher, brothers Mike and Pat, the four men in the greatest band in Canadian history, are to be thanked for sharing him with us for so long, and should be given their time and space to make peace with their loss.
For the rest of us, those who love Downie and the Hip and all they represent, it’s time to come together in love and music, to share our stories. Call your best friends and talk. Turn the albums up louder. Cry together. Laugh together. Remember together. Be. Together.
Let Ry Cooder know we’ll all be singing this eulogy for the rest of our lives.