*photo by Tom Pandi
This morning I was driving to the office, like any other day. I tuned into the Edge, hoping DJ Carly Meyers’ show would help pass the time as I crawled up the DVP. Her familiar voice flooded my car, but instead of her usual dry wit and humor, there was an unfamiliar somber tone. As I listened, I realized she was reading this statement, and something so many of us were dreading had finally happened.
Gord Downie, Canadian musician, activist, and icon, had succumbed to brain cancer. His battle was finally over, and a trail of tears and heartbreak lie in its wake.
As I’ve written before, I was never a huge Hip fan, but I grew to love their music. I was saddened to hear of Downie’s diagnosis, already mourning the loss of such an inspiring person from the Canadian landscape. I knew that his death would hit me, and when I heard the news it did. I was sad, sad for his family, sad for his fans, and sad for the work he had begun and the changes he was trying to make. But it wasn’t until Carly cued up the next song that I truly reacted.
The strains of Audioslaves “Like a Stone” filled the car, and as Chris Cornell’s voice came into my ears, tears began to stream down my face.
Damn you Carly, your timing was uncanny.
I realized in that moment that while Gord Downie wasn’t my music “dude” like Chris Cornell was, the feelings of loss washed over me again; the same feeling that so many Tragically Hip and Gord Downie fans were feeling. I would never wish the pain I felt on that fateful day in May on anyone. And yet, there was a huge population of music lovers feeling what I felt then, now.
It doesn’t make it easier that we saw it coming. It doesn’t make it easier to know that he’s no longer suffering. In Canada, today is yet another day when the music died. And that hurts, no matter what.
Gord Downie was more than a musician. In the last years of his life, he spent the energy he had left to raise awareness about the plight of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He put pen to paper to create Secret Path, a project that began as a series 10 poems, that became 10 songs, that became a graphic novel, and then a film, all telling the heart-wrenching tale of Chanie Wenjack. At the age of 12, Chanie escaped the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario. He died on October 22, 1966, freezing to death as he fought to return to the family he was taken from over 400 miles away.
If there’s one thing I will mourn the most about the passing of Gord Downie, it’s that the world has lost another incredible activist, a person who put others before himself, and used his platform and his power to shed light on a difficult, yet very important cause. For as much as Downie always will be a Canadian icon, he was not proud of that Canada, the Canada of the residential schools, the Canada that still makes second class citizens of the peoples on whose land we live. We need to continue his work with indigenous peoples to make Canada the place that he believed it could be. We need to keep working to make Canada a place that Gord Downie would have truly been proud to represent.
The work of the Secret Path, of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, the Gord Downie Brain Cancer fund and more will continue, but it’s up to us, those that Gord left behind, to keep his mission alive. I’ve posted the links to those organizations below. Take the time today to learn, to make a donation, and to celebrate the man and the music.
I leave you with this song, one that grew to be my favorite Tragically Hip song. It’s beautiful, unique and core shaking arrangement has no compare. I had the pleasure of watching Gord and the band perform it live, on Valentine’s day at the ACC a few years back. I was there alone in a sea of couples, but when they launched into this tune, none of that mattered. It was all about the music.
RIP Gord Downie. 1964 -2017.