For those that don’t know Canada lost a part of itself this past October. Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away October 17th after battling with terminal brain cancer for nearly a year and a half. Even though we all knew of the unavoidable circumstances the type of cancer brings I don’t think this nation was really prepared to lose Gord just yet. You see, Gord didn’t just call it quits and sit back to undergo treatment – he devoted his final years of his life to the bands fans, to increase the awareness of the hurt and pain the residential school system within Canada has brought forth, and to simply live life with love to all those who he had close to him.
Not too long after the diagnosis was made public Gord, along with The Tragically Hip announced a nationwide tour – and when tickets were in high demand, they increased the number of shows. This is truly giving back to his fans and was a very emotional farewell to those that adored him the most. I, unfortunately, failed after multiple attempts at attaining tickets for the tour and in the end enjoyed the show along with millions of other Canadians in backyards, gatherings, and parties. To say that this was just another Hip show would be drastically underplaying the whole thing – I wrote about the emotional attachment myself and Canada has to this band during that time.
The post however focussed more how I felt at the time – and that’s cool – but what I really want to write about now is who Gord was to me, who he is to other Canadians. The day after Gord’s death my wife and I headed to the small city of Kingston, Ontario – the very city where the band grew up, and eventually formed. Here, fans gathered in Springer Market Square, the same location that boasted thousands of people to who couldn’t get tickets to the venue which was only blocks away, watching the live stream of the final stop of the farewell tour in their hometown just a year ago. However this time, more somber, more vidual like. Sure there were hip tunes blaring out of speakers everywhere ( the local radio station in Kingston redubbed themselves GordFM and played nothing but the hip for the following week), there were people with guitars and people singing. But most sat quietly, holding candles, talking about memories of the band and Gord – memories of their own lives, all of which are somehow intermingled into this band. You see, for myself, it’s hard to think of a time that doesn’t somehow involve the Tragically Hip – especially around the area where I live close to their hometown. It appears everyone has a story in one way or another involving one of the members of the band – and you can’t visit Kingston without seeing some remanence of them. Kingston, the same city where a group of friends and myself saw The Tragically Hip play in 2005. At the end of that show, Gord, in Gord’s magical way was thanking the audience – when I heard him utter the words “thanks to the people of Madoc and Tweed”. Madoc & Tweed – Two small towns of no more than 2000 people located an hour away, of which one of them I reside in. This stuck with me, and on the giant banner of paper laid out on the ground during that memorial, I felt compelled to write my own message back to him. Yeah, date night at a vidual – so Gord like.
I know some people will think “hmmph” – he’s just frontman for a band – but to Canada, he was much much more. He was the frontman for our band, for Canada’s band – for a band that tried their best to breakthrough into US markets but instead just filled the bars in American cities with floods of Canadians who happened to be down there – or in a lot of circumstances made the trek to see them. But why did we do this? What is this obsession? The thing is, the words, the lyrics they belted out were just so “Canadian” at times – to the point where you were hard-pressed to find a song that didn’t relate to you in some way…
But these words they put on paper were not in a “rah rah go Canada” type manner – more often they were the complete opposite. Not to say Gord didn’t love Canada, he most certainly did – he loved it so much that he was willing to “out” certain events and give his criticism to the country the best way he knew how. Songs like “Born in the water” which calls out Sault St Maries declaration in 1990 to be an “English only” town. “Something On”, which the band recorded while being help up in their studio, along with the rest of us held up in houses during the great ice storm in 1998 – but perhaps the most famous, “Wheat Kings” which speaks of the wrongful conviction and release of David Milgaard, who spent 20 years incarcerated for “something he didn’t do”. These lyrics and the hundreds of others truly ring a different tune after his passing. I find myself now listening specifically to the words – dissecting each and every lyric and finding myself no longer casually listening to those ever so familiar hip tunes that blast out in between whistles at nearly every hockey game. He truly loved Canada – but knew we could be better and devoted his remaining time to ensure we could get there – and while we may have lost him physically, his legacy, his work, will live on for years and years to come… Even if The Tragically Hip wasn’t really your thing, there’s no denying the love and work that Gord Downie brought forth to better this country.
And nothing, nothing proves this point more than the work Gord attended to in the last few years of his life… Recording a new album, short film, and illustrated book The Secret Path – which spoke of a twelve-year-old boy, Chanie Wenjack, who was victim to the crimes and hate of the residential school system in Canada. A journey through Chanie’s eyes as he escaped and attempted to walk nearly 400 miles back to his home after he was taken from his parents, before finally falling victim. This album, along with the short film/book that goes with it is one of the most powerful, emotional, and moving things I’ve ever listened to/read. You see, before this, before Gord took this upon himself to let me know, I had no idea about what residential school systems entailed, what happened and is happening as Gord puts it “up north”. I don’t want to get into all what the residential school system entails here – it’s not the proper place for the medium – but the shear fact that I didn’t know about this, that it wasn’t taught to me in school baffles me entirely. Its a part of Canadian history, and although it’s not our most proud moment I believe it should still be known, we should still be educated about it. I mean, that’s what Canadian is right – honestly, transparency, openness – let’s get back to that Canada! I can’t help but think I’m not the only one in this boat – and the nation agreed, offering up Gord the Order of Canada for his achievements. I have to think that if there is one aspect of Gord’s life that needs to live on, that needs to stick with us – it’s this one!
Gords musical career didn’t end at Secret Path as most thought it would – he released one more solo album, Introduce Yerself, which came out shortly after his passing. This album is quickly being dubbed as his farewell album – his way of saying goodbye. To be honest, listening to some of the tracks off this album is painful – each and everyone seems to be about someone close or something important that happened in Gord’s life – which he put together with what memory he had left in a sort of haunting, emotional way only Gord could. Songs like “Bedtime” which describes what I can only imagine is Gord’s children and the struggle of getting them to bed. “I held you/I rocked you to sleep/It’d take a long time/Eventually you’d go“, “How you would cry/And I’d come back/Yeah, I’d come back/And lift you up/Sit back down with you/Try to start all over again/Start slowly rocking again/Start all over again/We’d start all over again/I’d come back/Lift you up/Start all over again” – words I can’t imagine even writing, let alone recording, knowing the outcome that was indefintely in front of me. “Love over money” rings of his bandmates and how they stuck together over the years – from playing to “no one and no one plus one” to “we deafened the husband of the Queen of England” when they were seleted to play infront of Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Canada in 2002.
So in the end, yeah, Gords death is certainly a “real kick in the pants” as he would put it – but what doesn’t die is the work he’s started, the awareness he has raised. Yes, “Canada has lost a part of itself” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it – but we’ve definitely gained so much more during the years we had him. So while we’ve lost our frontman we still have our pride – and I hope Canada will listen – I hope Canada will become a little more like Canada again! Nothing will take away the awareness raised by Gordon Downie – and those songs will still echo through arenas all over this country. I just hope that when we hear them from now on we remember, remember Gord, remember the Hip, and remember who we are and where we stand – and how that compares to where we want to be. Remember, it may be a life after Gord Downie, but most certainly not without him…