At first the words won’t come, just the tears. We knew the day was coming and yet...
The tears are both a mourning of who he was and a celebration of what he gave us, because what he gave us was a sense of ourselves. Gord was a troubadour, a stenographer of a national consciousness, a historian of our little ways. I hope you don’t mind me calling him Gord; he wasn’t a stranger. He was family.
I grew up in Kingston, Ontario. Our main exports are limestone and the Tragically Hip. Kingston is a town that rallied around its native sons like it hasn’t rallied around anything else. If you’ve lived in Kingston — hell, if you’ve been to Kingston — you know the spark that comes when someone brings up the Hip. Kingstonians have this look — a look of pride, and familiarity, and home. “They went to this school,” “they played that venue,” “they lived in this neighbourhood.” They belonged to the city. He belonged to the city.
Still, in the same way that Gord belonged to Kingston, Gord belonged to all of us. Over 34 years, he wrote his way into our hearts and our memories. “Canada’s band,” they called the Hip, and what else can you call them? They made it their business to become synonymous with how we tell the story of Canada back to ourselves. For that reason, the Hip are a band that’s just at home in Winnipeg as they are in Medicine Hat. Everywhere they go, they get it.
To the extent that there is a Canadian identity, it isn’t dictated. It doesn’t come from a book or a speech. It doesn’t come from a politician (though many have tried in vain to give it shape). That identity is forged. It’s sketched while mapping the nation in a van or a tour bus. Gord made the stories of Saskatoon and Trois-Pistoles and Attawapiskat and Bobcaygeon and countless other places come to life. He made sure we never ignore them when we try to create something legibly, identifiably Canadian.
He was the poet laureate of a nation that needed poetry to tell its story. A young nation, a bit adrift, that needed a sense of story to understand our milestones. If we are to forge an identity, to craft a vision of who we might be, then let us do it with our stories, Gord said. And you know the greatest hits, the bonafides, have always been there: songs about David Milgaard and the FLQ crisis, about the mysterious death of Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson. I wasn’t yet born in 1972, but I can tell you all about a goal that everyone remembers because of Gord. This is what the great poets do — they do not recount what happened, they find a way to inject its meaning into your veins so that it can circulate in your body.
One of the great idiosyncrasies of this country is that our $1 coin is called a “loonie,” and we’re all okay with it. In fact, we’re proud of it. It’s named after the common loon bird, which can be found in much of the country. But you don’t hear the call of the loon in the suburbs of Kingston. The first time I heard the sound of a loon call was at the start of “Wheat Kings,” accompanied by soft acoustic guitar.
Gord understood what his music meant to us, but he never lorded it over us. By all accounts, it made him uncomfortable that the Hip was seen as a distilled version of Canadian-ness. The songs were the work; he would sculpt a story of Canada and let it speak for itself.
And then cancer came.
In May 2016, he was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer. While the nation reeled from the news, Gord was gathering up every bit of strength he had to go on a cross-country tour. One last time, we would get to see the Hip as we know them.
The last show of the tour was Aug. 20 in the hometown. Kingston came out in droves; the 7,000-seat arena would not suffice. So as the band played inside, 27,000 people filled the city’s Market Square, myself included. It was electric. We held each other, cried, and sang. And cried and cried.
In parks and bars and backyards, millions of Canadians watched transfixed as the Hip, led by Gord, played to our hearts on CBC TV. All in all, a third of all Canadians — 11.7 million people — tuned in at some point that night. It was the second-most-watched event in Canadian television ever, second only to the men’s hockey gold-medal match of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Gord was gigantic.
He was commanding and bright, emotional and generous. He was our Gord, and he wanted to have a word with us as only Gord could.
And so it was on the biggest night of his life that he put down a microphone, walked off stage, then came back out to remind us not to forget about Canada’s Indigenous people. This was his parting message that night.
Maybe it worried him that we would latch onto the wrong parts of the image of ourselves he made us see. That we would think of Canada as landscapes and hockey, and ignore the rest. Maybe it worried him that this was the impression he left us with.
Luckily, Gord didn’t have to leave room for doubt. Shortly after the tour ended, it was announced that he was working on another project. If you missed the message at the concert, he was going to spend literally the rest of his life making sure you didn’t miss it again.
Secret Path ended up being his swan song, and what a swan song it was. It’s a concept album depicting the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who escaped from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. Wenjack died of exposure and hunger. He died trying to walk the 600 kilometres from the residential school back to his home on the Marten Falls Reserve. He walked for 36 hours in subzero temperatures, wearing only a light windbreaker.
The record opens with “The Stranger,” a song for which Gord won the Juno Award for Songwriter of the Year. It sounds like Gord and not-Gord: familiar and foreign, comforting and haunting. It begins softly and then it builds. Gord’s voice rises and becomes steady as if to say, “I am sure this is the direction; there is no option but to look.” Gord knew that what he was about to show would horrify us, but that we must look all the same. How long have we delayed spending time with the horrors of our history? That too is Canada, despite our best acts of national amnesia. And so with Gord as our headlamp, we turned and faced the dark. Walk like a matador. Don’t be chicken-shit.
He turned his attention to Indigenous stories in his last chapter because he saw that Canada was never going to understand itself without healing its wounds. That requires us to face our original sin. You cannot do that without hearing those voices loud and clear. Writing for The Walrus, Alexander Tesar noted that “to the extent that Downie has shaped white Canada’s perception of itself through his music, he is also the best ambassador to deliver hard truths to them.”
And so for his final act, Gord twisted himself into a microphone.
That he may not be the best person for the job probably occurred to him. His amplification of Chanie Wenjack’s story was not without criticism. But he was one of the few artists of his stature to actually try. “Downie is an incongruous choice to bring together white and Indigenous Canada, but right now he’s doing the work that many of us are unwilling or unable to do,” Tesar writes. “And if he can change Canada’s perception of itself with this project the same way he has mythologized the more familiar elements of its settler past, we may be more willing to confront both our history and its ongoing effects.”
Indigenous artists praised the work. Tanya Tagaq told Vice that Gord’s work “forces people into a corner. … Racists and bigots are cornered.” A Tribe Called Red’s Ian Campeau said “it’s confronting what Canada was based on.”
If Gord saw the best of Canada, it is because he also brought it out. That night in Kingston, he saw the best in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in the audience, looking on in fierce admiration. He paused the concert to remind us that we need to step up for Canada’s Indigenous population. “What’s going on up there ain’t good… but we’re going to get it fixed, and we got the guy to do it, to start to help.” He pointed at Trudeau. And with one gesture, he charged the prime minister with the job of reconciliation.
The morning after Gord’s death, Trudeau wept on TV.
You can see the weight of that on his face. The weight of Gord’s words: No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.
In a 2012 interview, Gord told the CBC’s Wendy Mesley, “You write what you know. And I love this country. I love my idea of this country.” Four years later, in the statement that accompanied the release of Secret Path, he revealed that he “never thought of Canada as a country.”
The two statements aren’t contradictory. He had an idea of who we are, not what we are. Downie unlocked the question of what makes Canada tick by sidestepping the premise: His life, his music, his poetry all add up to an argument that there is no “what,” there just is. A Canada forged by repeating a thousand times: Don’t we all live here? Don’t we all live here? Don’t we all live here?
It’s because of Gord that I can say “we,” and have used that “we” throughout. I haven’t landed on everything that “we” entails but I know it’s there. I’ve sensed it because of Gord.
This summer, on a cool August night a year after that last Hip concert, I found myself on a quiet lake, north of Toronto. I heard the loon call for the first time in my life, and I saw the grapefruit moon’s reflection on the still water. This one thing probably never goes away.
Yes, Gord: We all live here.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud is a curation editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto
Contact Elamin Abdelmahmoud at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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