On Oct. 18, Canada woke up to news that it long knew was coming but didn’t want to ever hear: the incomparable Gord Downie had passed away the previous day.
Succumbing to brain cancer at the age of 53, Downie left behind a heart-broken but inspired nation. It wasn’t his incredible career with The Tragically Hip or the way his lyrics and music transcended generations of Canadians that defined Downie. No, it was how he spent his final year and a half that truly defines who Gord Downie was. It’s what we as a country should keep close to our hearts.
Nobody would’ve blamed Gord for slinking into the shadows after news of his fatal diagnosis broke in the May of 2016. Previously, his enigmatic onstage personality was matched only by a mysterious life off it. We learned a little bit here and there, but really two things stand out about the Downie we knew prior to 2016: he held an unwavering belief in Canada, and he was prone to eccentric ramblings while playing with Canada’s greatest band (ramblings which only heightened his mystique).
Gord had a penchant for going on tangents — his mind seemingly elsewhere while a stream of consciousness poured out of him and into a microphone an arm’s reach away. Be it about a “big fucking bear,” or “a music festival as big as the Grand Canyon, but with pack mules,” or, hell, even “the largest snake in the world shedding its skin, then taking pieces of the skin, dried and autographed, and selling them to the fans,” you can ask anyone who went into their first Hip concert unaware of Downie’s persona — his odd asides will be the first thing they bring up.
Luckily for us, shying away when millions of Canadians were reeling was never going to be Gord’s style. By July 2016, The Hip were back on tour, crossing the country they held so dear and promoting their new album. Downie was his old self, adorned in vibrant suits and that now-famous feathered cap. On Aug. 20, The Hip took the stage in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, for what would be their final time as a band. As the last chords of “Ahead by a Century” played, broadcasted on CBC for all of Canada, a country wept, certain this would be the final goodbye to the man who authored the soundtrack of their childhood.
But that wouldn’t have been Gord’s style, either.
Not three weeks after their final show, Downie announced a new project: The Secret Path. It was an album, film, and graphic novel about Chanie Wenjack, a young Ojibwe boy who died at age 12 trying to find his way home from a residential school. Its purpose was to help shine a light on Canada’s dark treatment of Indigenous peoples and the impact residential schools have had in the country’s history. He would spend the remainder of his life using his profile to draw attention to this issue and working on reconciliation with First Nations people in Canada.
Gord Downie spent the final 17 months of his life fighting a terminal sickness with a smile on his face, hope in his eyes, and belief in his heart. Hope and belief for Canada to be a better nation, and a smile because, damn it, Gord Downie was a beaming light of positivity.
Beyond that, he dedicated the final 17 months of his life to others. During that final show in Kingston, he spoke to the nation and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directly, saying: “It’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there [in Northern Ontario residential schools] but it isn’t cool, and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. But we’re going to figure it out. You’re going to figure it out.”
In The Hip’s waning moments as a band, Gord Downie brought attention to those that the country he adored so much had ignored for more than 150 years. In his own waning moments, he worked tirelessly to make sure that wasn’t a moment lost in time. He delivered a message, and, undeterred by fate, he carried that message until he no longer could.
Now that he can’t, it’s up to us as a country to continue it. It’s imperative, not for Downie’s legacy, but because he’s right — Canada is a great nation with a dark past and deep scars. We can only hope his lasting legacy was one of inspiration; inspiration to love the good in Canada, to recognize its dark history, and to continue working towards an inclusive nation.
Thank you, Gord Downie. Thank you for inspiring us all to be better Canadians. Thank you for reminding us that Canada is far more imperfect than we like to acknowledge.
Thank you for not being afraid to give us a nudge in the right direction — even if it was to the Prime Minister, on national television. Thank you for connecting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, coaches and youth hockey teams, and friends, young and old.
Thank you, most of all, for being one of our own. You never forgot about us — your faith in Canada and the people in it only grew stronger with time — and we won’t ever forget you. We are all richer for having had you in our lives, Gordie.