Something that is not often discussed but universally understood as a unique, “Canadian” sort of thing is having a memory involving The Tragically Hip’s music playing. Maybe you listened to “Bobcaygeon” while fishing in the town itself, or watched Canada Day fireworks to the tune of “Ahead By A Century”. If you were very lucky, you might have even attended Gord Downie’s farewell concert last year in his hometown of Kingston. After his brain cancer diagnosis, Downie concluded his 2015-2016 tour with The Hip before retiring to spend his last days with his family. As a nation, we were lucky enough to get another year with his brilliant heart and mind before his family reported his passing earlier this week.
Its hard to accurately describe the experience of listening to The Hip’s music. For all the eclectic and undefined nature of Canadian culture, the words and actions of this band seemed to capture something that resonates with many of us. And what I do believe is certain is that Gord made us better as Canadians.
It might be silly, trying to describe to an American-centric readership what our artists mean to us, whether they perform at home or abroad. The land border we share is with – sorry guys – a highly volatile political superpower. We are the business partners and brothers-in-arms of the United States, whether we like it or not. In no uncertain terms, is because of people like Gord that we can feel a little bigger and stronger on a cultural stage that may otherwise take us for granted.
As a musician, Gord took his role as a cultural leader with a quiet dignity and unprecedented sense of personal responsibility. Through example, he made us kinder, more thoughtful, and more confident as citizens, but also more cognizant about our failings as a nation. The songs of the Tragically Hip made us proud of what we’ve accomplished as people, such as “Fifty Mission Cap”, which tells the tale of Maple Leafs hockey player Bill Barilko.
He also had the courage to engage with some of the worst parts of our culture and history, and provide vibrant, loving and honest advocacy to those effected.
Towards the end of his career and life, Downie contributed to Truth and Reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Canadians. His fifth solo album, Secret Path, debuted one year ago and provides some intimate, much-needed awareness to an ongoing cultural trauma. Throughout the album, the journey and demise of a real-life escapee from a residential school is recounted. It is easy for many of us, especially those with fame or wealth, to love our country and the comforts it gives us. What makes Gord utterly unique is his ability to look at the darkest parts of our history, and still feel a love strong enough to want us all to better ourselves as citizens.
When considering our history and political climate today, we might not really be ahead by a century. But men like Gord and the rest of the Hip made us feel like it was worth the effort trying to be. My only hope is that coming generations can feel the same, and that which is considered exemplary today becomes the norm for tomorrow.