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CBC Music Names "Gord Downie Person of the Year"

Gord Downie did the seemingly impossible this year. And then he did it again.

It’s a rare, if not completely unachievable moment to experience in one’s life, to get the kind of exposure Downie had performing in Kingston with the Tragically Hip on the final night of the band’s Man Machine Poem tour. To have that type of audience, one-third of the country, staring at your sweating brow as you hold the microphone and look for the proper words to say during this, possibly your band’s final performance after 30 years on the road. A career cut off by a cancer diagnosis, a gruelling city-by-city tour across the country during which your fatigue is clearly showing, matched only by your verve to get the job done, and now you’re standing centre stage at your hometown arena and speaking to a nation. It’s the stuff of myth-making, the kind of unique moment Downie made a career singing about and which, through some twisted sense of poetic fate, his career seemed to lead up to.

“Wait a second, there’s 20 million people watching, I can say whatever I want,” he later told CBC News, reflecting on the moment when that spotlight shone down on him with the weight of everything he’s ever been through to get here and to come. And what he said was, “We’re in good hands, folks. Real good hands,” just as the cameras showed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wearing a Tragically Hip shirt, in the crowd. “He cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore.”

“Wait a second, there’s 20 million people watching, I can say whatever I want.”

Rather than reflect on his career, or even, as some presumed he would, ask for donations to cancer research at this final show, Downie called out the prime minister, and the entire country, to act on the problems facing Indigenous people in the North.

“What’s going on up there ain’t good,” he said. “It may be worse than it’s ever been.”

As extraordinary as that was — a moment of selflessness that was immediately heralded as heroic — it’s what Downie did next that truly showed how one man managed to revive a country’s guilty conscience long laid dormant.

Because cancer or not, Downie had already planned his next move. Three years ago, his brother, Mike, showed him an article in Maclean’s magazine about Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwa boy who, in 1966, ran away from a residential school in northern Ontario and attempted to walk home some 600 kilometres. He was found dead days later, having succumbed to starvation and exposure.

Downie, along with his brother and the author Joseph Boyden, were so struck by the story that they planned to mark its 50th anniversary, a dark moment in Canadian history too few knew about, with an outpouring of creativity. The twin projects — Downie’s, an album called Secret Path paired with a graphic novel of the same name by Jeff Lemire and an animated film, also broadcast on CBC, and Boyden’s, a novella called Wenjack (followed by a full-length novel, Seven Matches, in 2017) — were always going to come out in October. Just as the Hip was always going to tour its new album, well before people were calling it the band’s last. What no one could ever have accounted for were the events leading up to that night in Kingston, with Downie staring down his legacy and somehow coming up with the exact right words to say.

Secret Path, recorded over three years with producers Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin, features Downie, over 10 songs, embodying the 12-year-old Wenjack during his final moments. Downie performed the album twice, in Ottawa and Toronto, with Chanie’s sister, Pearl Wenjack, onstage with him the significance of this, one of the most important gestures of Downie’s career, driving him, “filling him up,” as his brother told CBC.

Then there was the launch of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, dedicated to improving the lives of First Nations in Canada, and the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation, which received the proceeds from Secret Path. The graphic novel is even being used in classrooms, and educators from each province have already met with the Wenjack family, Lemire, Gord and Mike Downie in Ottawa to see how it can be officially integrated into the curriculum.

Secret Path is a legacy project for Downie, more so than 14 Tragically Hip albums, the diamond and platinum records, the awards. But even more than that, it’s the culmination of everything combined, all leading up to the awkward conversation our country, after 150 years, needs to have so desperately. One we needed someone like Downie to pick up and drop on the table in front of everyone, daring us all to look away. It’s all we’ve been able to talk about since.


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