BY SAM GILLON                                                       




Image courtesy of David Bastedo

We can’t say we didn’t see it coming. Yesterday, Gord Downie succumbed to glioblastoma, the deadly brain cancer he was publicly diagnosed with in 2016. At the age of 53, Gord lost his battle, and Canada lost an Icon. 

Downie was the lead singer and songwriter for the Tragically Hip over their 30 year dominance of the Canadian Music landscape. Their music brings up different things to different people. When I asked other people what the Tragically Hip “sounded like”, I got a multitude of responses. People thought of hanging out with their fathers in their basement or the garage. Others mentioned the first sip of beer after sitting down at a campfire with friends. My father reminded me of the time the two of us simply survived a canoe trip, and heard “Bobcaygeon” as soon as we hit shore. My mom is reminded of Gord’s acts regarding reconciliation. A co-worker of mine was reminded of singing “Long Time Running” behind a local bar with strangers. When I asked a dear family friend what the Hip sounded like, she responded by sending me a photo; her vinyl-copy of the Tragically Hip’s first album. She remembers specifically connecting to the song “Evelyn” as she listened to the album because of the fellow bandmate Gord Sinclair’s memorable lyrics. She also laughed about writing her name across Gord’s face on the album’s cardboard cover. 

But why did their music elicit such varying responses? Most likely, it’s because the Hip are Canada’s “local artist”. They told the stories about this land that wouldn’t be remembered if they weren’t in a hit song. Bill Barilkno’s Stanley Cup hex and David Millgaard’s wrongful conviction are moments that captured the nation while they happened, but were quickly forgotten about as the next week’s headline’s rolled off the presses. Songs like “50 Mission Cap” and “Wheat Kings” burned these events into our national memory and make us reflect on our country. And that is what the Hip, and specifically Downie, have done for their listeners. Their music is absolutely, fantastically and proudly Canadian. But they don’t celebrate Canada by singing songs about lumberjacks and maple syrup. Songs like “Bobcaygeon” celebrate Canadians coming together, while “Nautical Disaster” grimly tells of the ill-fated Dieppe raid during the Second World War. They have ingrained Canada’s history into our modern culture in a way that separates us from our nation’s stereotypes of beavers and polar bear rides to school. Yes, there are songs about hockey, the prairies and “the CBC”, but there are also songs that talk about the Canada that only Canadians know. We hang out in fields listening to music, we go on cross continental road trips without leaving home and even the Europeans battlefields where much of our national identity has been forged have been immortalized through Gord Downie and the canon of The Tragically Hip’s songs. 

Downie’s desire to depict societies without their negative stereotypes extends past the way he describes Canada in his music. After his diagnosis and the cross country, “Man Machine Poem Tour”, (when the Hip broke viewing records all across the country) Downie made an immense donation to indigenous communities across Canada. To these too-often-forgotten citizens, Downie donated his last moments in the spotlight. While Canadian policy makers have maintained the usual lip service and inaction regarding reconciliation with indigenous peoples, Downie at the very least gave exposure and hope to these communities. In a statement by Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishbawbe Aski Nation, he stated “Gord knew this [reconciliation] wouldn’t be easy, but I pray that my friend has inspired us all to get moving”. 

Gord Downie has left a rather large public legacy. Kingston’s largest event venue, the K-Rock centre, is located on Tragically Hip Way. Next year, the city will open the “Gord Downie Beach” just off of King St. West. Our Prime Minister, who was thanked for his friendship on stage during the Hip’s nationally broadcast final concert, gave a tearful speech on Wednesday. But even more than his public legacy, it is the private legacies that Downie leaves scattered across our country that immortalizes him. It’s the out-of-nowhere smile that creeps across your face whenever “Ahead By a Century” begins, or the odd sense of nationalism you get whenever Gord’s voice drifts through the radio’s speakers. Just this past summer, I had a fantastic moment myself while I was celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday; myself and 30 other tree planters singing “Wheat Kings” in the Canadian wilderness, while we set off fireworks on the south side of camp and the northern lights flickered on the north side. Without the Hip, that moment wouldn’t have felt the way that it did. And that is Gord’s legacy. So from all of us across Canada: thank you Gord. As Burke Paterson, a Canadian artist and family friend of ours wrote: “Thank you for all of the music and words, and for all your Grace, Too.”

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