Gord Downie was a lot of things for Canadians. He was our very own unofficial poet laureate, documenting the experiences of winters by the ice rink, summers in cottage country and life in the small towns of a big country as something mystical and alluring. He was our very own rock star, selling out arenas and churning out radio hits without ever sacrificing a stage presence and lyrical style that was all his own.
He was our very own activist — in a country that still silences Indigenous voices, he used his platform to elevate them, all without ever making it about himself. In fact, his last project was not focused on the band he had been a part of for decades or a solo project reflecting on the end of a prolific career: it was an album and graphic novel retelling the forgotten story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year-old Indigenous boy whose death following his escape from a residential school remains one of many ugly stains in the fabric of Canada’s history.
As the frontman of The Tragically Hip, Gord Downie’s voice was one that at times seemed omnipresent. I may have missed most of the band’s prime years on account of not being born until 1997, but The Hip was a band that never seemed to fade from relevance. They would be heard over the speakers at the hockey tournaments my parents dragged me to; they would be blaring from dockside radios we passed when my friends and I took the canoe out on the water. Twenty-year-old tracks still enjoyed radio play and spins on Much (the Canadian counterpart of MTV) — Bobcaygeon, New Orleans Is Sinking, Grace, Too, Ahead By A Century. All at once, Hip songs were poetry, they were rock and roll and they were distinctly and uniquely Canadian.
In some ways, the band felt exclusively Canadian. Despite having three albums sell over a million copies in Canada (in a country with just 33 million people, that earns a Diamond certification) and earning countless Juno awards and nominations, The Hip never earned a Grammy nod or made an impact on the American charts. But that was fine — after all, their Canadian audience treated them well, filling out arenas and stadiums with every album cycle.
So it was, of course, expected that the 2016 album Man Machine Poem would be accompanied by a successful tour. But what nobody expected was for Gord to announce the diagnosis of glioblastoma, an incurable and terminal brain tumour, soon before the record’s release. What was even more unexpected was for the band to decide to carry on with business as usual. Despite a grim prognosis, the band carried on with a massively successful, sold-out tour that summer, ending in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Twenty-thousand gathered in Kingston’s public square, an additional 11 million watched the CBC live broadcast. Even Justin Trudeau took a break from his daily photo-op duties to attend the show.
In December of 2016, Gord cried as the Assembly of First Nations honoured his activism and gave him a Lakota spirit name: Wicapi Omani, which translates to “man among the stars.” According to a public statement from his family, he passed away peacefully on Tuesday, Oct. 17.
“Gord knew this day was coming,” the statement read. “His response was to spend this precious time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well-lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.”
In coming weeks and months, we’ll almost certainly read countless op-eds about Gord’s legacy and impact, probably mostly from people who were actually alive during the band’s prime. I might not have been around for the band’s early shows at student pubs and dive bars; I was not there for the release of the breakout hit Road Apples or the legendary Fully Completely. In fact, I remember teasing a boy in middle school for his professed love of The Hip because that was our parents’ music (by high school, I had developed both a love for the band and a bit of a crush on said classmate, the moral of the story here is that middle-schoolers are wrong about essentially everything).
I might be removed from their 1990s and 2000s fame, but what I do remember is this: in high school English, we learned that a fundamental theme from Canadian literature is survival. We read novels by Robertson Davies (who, coincidentally, happened to go to the same high school as Downie) and analyzed heroes who faced the odds and the elements with courage and stoicism.
A summer later I watched a dying man finish a nearly three-hour set on the last date of a grueling three-month arena tour, wearing a wonderfully ridiculous, sparkly silver suit and a Jaws t-shirt. I watched as our very own unofficial poet laureate proved himself to be what we always knew him to be: a Canadian literary hero, fully and completely.