“First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk / Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts / With illusions of someday casting a golden light / No dress rehearsal, this is our life”
It has been an emotional week for Canadians. Amidst the international turmoil, uncertainty south of the border and a new political era, Canadians from Vancouver to St. John’s, Iqaluit to Windsor, and the city of Kingston, Ontario have held their breath as they come to terms with the tragic loss of a Canadian icon. After battling a terminal brain tumour, Gord Downie passed away October 17th at the age of 53.
I realize that to the average American (or anyone not from Canada for that matter), the name Gord Downie doesn’t really strike a chord. But here in Canada, he was an icon, a legend and an inspiration to many. Gord had a deep love for Canada, as reflected in his music, and despite his fame, he always carried this love, passion and humility in his back pocket.
For those that aren’t familiar with the artist, Gord was a member of the renowned Canadian band The Tragically Hip. Formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1984, The Hip quickly rose to fame and became a household name across Canada. Gord, the lead singer, wrote and sang music that continues to resonate with Canadians from coast to coast- he was a poet and musician, using his gift to tell stories of Canadian life. His unique style, mesmerising lyrics and enthralling performances were unlike Canada had ever seen, at least from our “home and native land.” However, in 2016, it was announced that Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a terminal brain tumour condition. Although he was responding well to treatment, the cancer is still considered incurable and Canadians knew that Gord’s days were limited. Despite this, the band continued the tour of their 14th album, Man Machine Poem. After travelling across Canada on their farewell tour, the band ended where it all began- Kingston, Ontario. This concert is considered, and will probably be considered for a long tim, one of the most powerful and influential concerts in Canadian history. The CBC aired it live, uninterrupted across all their major platforms, and it was viewed live by 11.7 million people. Think about it. That is approximately one third of the population of Canada. Regardless of if they were a Hip fan or not, Canadians everywhere knew the importance of Gord’s work and knew we would soon lose an icon. Sure enough, Gord passed away Tuesday evening surrounded by his family. When the news came Wednesday morning, it was as if Canadians, for at least a brief moment, stood together in disbelief— we all knew it was coming, but still found the news hard to believe.
Let’s put Gord’s legacy this way: take the words of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, even Maya Angelou. The influence of Tom Petty, Johnny Cash- artists beyond their times. The passion of Martin Luther King Jr., the kindness of Mother Teresa. The grief following the passings of the great Leonard Cohen or David Bowie. For Canadians, his influence stands with the likes of Terry Fox, David Suzuki, even Wayne Gretzky. Other Canadian celebrities such as Ryan Reynolds and K.D. Lang have expressed their heartbreak to the rest of the world following Gord’s death. However, I remember learning about the tragic news via Facebook, when I saw a conference with Justin Trudeau regarding the loss of this legend. Trudeau tearfully gave his condolences following Gord’s death, stating “…He was everyone’s friend … our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had. And not just with a nebulous ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way, he loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.” In that moment, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of pride beyond the grief. There was a leader delivering an emotional statement as the nation struggles to cope with the loss of one our our greats. “Our buddy Gord”- to me, that is what makes Canada so wonderfully amazing: the sense of pride and community. I thoroughly believe that without Gord, we would not be able to so strongly appreciate and celebrate that pride. I immensely commend Mr. Trudeau for his honesty and humanity on the topic, for now, more than ever, I am so very proud to be a Canadian.
Whether or not you were a lifelong fan of The Hip or even if you had never heard of Gord’s name in your life, I think we can all learn something from his passing, especially in this day and age. Gord lived a life of passion and love, and despite the fame and fortune, he always remained humble. He spoke for the environment, he tearfully spoke against the trauma caused by residential schools, and he supported the indigenous communities of Canada. I would like to think that I could take Downie’s morals and values into my own life, hopefully becoming a better person from them. If you can find the time, listen to Gord’s lyrics, watch one of the many stories on his life, or even take a moment to honour his life. His dignity, compassion, grace and empathy is something that, if we want to really make a change in the world, we should all practice— and Downie was the perfect example. I think Gord’s passing has also given me and many others a new perspective on life. The fact is that Gord, such a famous and influential Canadian legend passed away at such a tragically young age. Although we don’t like to think about it, it could happen to any one of us. Even though he only had 53 years on this earth, and deserved many more, Gord accomplished so much while he was here. In 53 years, he has influenced so many people and left a lasting mark on his country— will I someday do the same? While I certainly hope I have many years ahead of me, the future is rather unpredictable. Yes, it is a grim thought, but it is this that continues to inspire me to make every last day count. If one day I grow into at least half the person Gord was, and leave behind even a fraction of the impact he left, I will know I have led a very fruitful life.
Today, Canada will grieve. Tomorrow, we will help maintain Gord’s legacy as a paramount Canadian.
Rest easy, Gord.