Canada says goodbye to a true legend

The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie dies at the age of 53

Photo courtesy of Billboard
Photo courtesy of Billboard

“We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it,” Prime Minister Trudeau stated Wednesday morning (Oct. 18) after news of The Tragically Hip frontman’s death was announced on Downie’s website. There were tears in the Prime Minister’s eyes as he led the nation in bidding farewell to the cultural icon – a man well known across the country and around the world for his heartfelt lyrics, his singular voice and his tireless efforts to raise awareness surrounding the plight of Indigenous Canadians.

Downie, born February 6, 1964 in Amherstview Ontario, served as lead singer and lyricist for the iconic Canadian rock band for over 30 years. His poetic lyrics drew upon Canadian legends, small town tales and the natural beauty of the country, creating a brand of national pride few could fathom, let alone articulate. Although The Hip (as they were known) could have easily set eyes on America and headed for a larger market, Downie and the rest of the band chose instead to focus on the country of their birth. Releasing over fifteen albums together (with hits like New Orleans is Sinking, Bobcaygeon and Fiddler’s Green, which still receive radio play today), Downie also released six solo albums, as well as a book of poetry.

After a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer in May of 2016, no one would have faulted Downie for stepping back and using the time he had left to focus on himself. No one would have blamed him after everything he’d already given to the world. But the diagnosis only served to inspire the release of another album, a redoubling of his activism, and a final tour that was documented under the title Long Time Running – a presentation which will air once again on CTV this Friday, October 20th. As his family put it, “Gord knew this day was coming [and] 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…”

The name Chanie Wenjack might be unfamiliar to many, but it was the story of his flight from a residential school – and unfortunate death – that inspired Downie to write several poems that would eventually become the album Secret Path, which was also released with an accompanying book sharing the young boy’s story. It was stories like Wenjack that struck Downie to his core and kept him focused even in the wake of his own crushing diagnosis.

Thirty years spent producing music is a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards. It’s more than enough time to influence the musical tastes of Canadians born in the 80s, and the tastes of their own children today. Add to that, though, a life spent advocating for the rights of others, a life spent trying to mend the hurt of the past, a life spent celebrating beauty and sharing it with the rest of the world, and it’s hard to regard Gord Downie’s short life as anything resembling tragedy. To those who knew Downie personally, and to those that only knew him from the ‘nosebleeds,’ fear not…we’ll see him again ‘in Fiddler’s Green.’