On the morning of Oct. 18, I ducked, almost instinctually, into a Tim Hortons. It was a deviation from my normal Tuesday routine. That day I had some time to waste and I thought getting some work done over a breakfast sandwich and medium coffee was the patriotic thing to do.
In journalism school, you become familiar with what I can only describe as a hoarse tone sometimes deployed in radio. It strikes out of the blue and contrasts the regular Top 40 pop sugar grind so abruptly your hair stands on end. It’s used by news readers not just when news is breaking, but breaking in a way that means you need to stop and listen. I heard it over the chatter of the restaurant and although I couldn’t make out the words, I knew something awful had happened somewhere in the world.
I flipped open my laptop.
“The Tragically Hip’s #GordDownie has passed away at the age of 53,” a friend and former colleague tweeted. It was attached to the statement put out by Downie’s family and sat at the top of my news feed. I sat there and stared at the tweet, as I’m sure a good chunk of the rest of the country did at their own way of learning.
I grabbed my phone and texted my oldest childhood friend.
It’s been over 5 months since Canada lost one of its quintessential rock stars, and, as a result, one of its most quintessential bands, The Tragically Hip. It’s hard to imagine how the dog days of summer will play out across the country this year. July will come, fires will be lit and the late Downie’s Ontario drawl will skip across lakes from coast to coast.
I was lucky to grow up listening to The Hip. If I had been a generation removed, I would have simply been folded into the fray. Naturally it took a calm and patient dad to force feed me Music @ Work, and Phantom Power till I really got it. It’s hard to describe the feeling of really hearing them.
I’m grateful for a lot of the musical appreciations I inherited from my father, but by and large my appreciation of Gord Downie is bar none. Any Toronto Maple Leafs fan who hasn’t had the opportunity to hear 50 Mission Cap, anyone who hasn’t faced a heartbreak to Fully Completely and anyone who has not spent a night somewhere in the Canadian wilderness under a sheet of stars while listening to Bobcaygeon is missing a piece of the big picture.
Downie was posthumously awarded artist of the year at this year’s Juno Awards, and also won adult alternative album of the year for his final, solo album Introduce Yerself. It was and will be a good way to remember him, but there are too many other reasons perhaps more important.
In his final years of life he doubled down on using his platform to spread word on Indigenous issues. He released a solo album that tells the true story of a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation by the name of Chanie Wenjack, who died while trying to return home after escaping from a residential school in northern Ontario. In 2016 Downie launched the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund with the goal of fostering more conversation between settlers and the Indigenous people of the land we call home.
Last month a white man was cleared of all charges he faced in the killing of Colten Boushie, an unarmed Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation. Downie, a symbol of Canada, rallied his whole career knowing he was often called to represent the culture of a nation where that type of blatant, systemic racism was possible. As protests spilled onto the streets across the country it was hard to not feel Downie’s outrage right there with the rest of us.
What’s most tragic about Downie’s untimely passing is how much the world needs him now more than ever. As a toxic brand of nationalism spilled across the world, including in our borders, Downie was a national symbol that was deeply skeptical and critical of the county his name became synonymous with. Wheat Kings tackles the government’s incompetence in the prosecution of David Milgaard. Bobcaygeon alludes to Canadian-bread white supremacy. If Downie was going to be tasked with writing the nation’s soundtrack he wasn’t just going to write anthems.
I texted my oldest friend when I heard the name because he, like me, was indoctrinated into The Hip at a young age, well past their peak. On Canada Day a handful of years ago we made a pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere to see Downie play. The crackle of electricity he emitted while on stage was a gift. We camped at the front of the stage early to make sure we’d get a spot. I’ll never forget being so trained on the set that it was not until halfway through that I looked back to see the mostly barren field where we had spent the day was suddenly packed as far as the eye could see. As if the whole country showed up.
We vowed to one another that no matter how far we’d need to travel, we’d always see The Hip on Canada Day. It’s a vow we didn’t follow through with, which is a regret. I simply had no idea there were so few years left to make that trip.
Downie leaves behind a legacy, and songs that aren’t just good rock songs but are woven into the fabric of the nation we call home. They are protest songs in this time of protest. They are fight songs in this time of unrest. They are forever there to guide and recalibrate us should we lose our way. We’re more complete because of it.