The Canadian Press
TORONTO–Gord Downie, the poetic lead singer of the Tragically Hip whose determined fight with brain cancer inspired a nation, has died.
He was 53.
Downie died Tuesday night “with his beloved children and family close by,” the band said in a statement on its website yesterday morning.
In the wake of his diagnosis with glioblastoma, an incurable form of cancer, the musician became a symbol of perseverance in the face of his mortality.
“Gord knew this day was coming,” said the statement, which was attributed to the Downie family.
“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, often sealing it with a kiss–on the lips,” it added.
“Gord said he had lived many lives,” the statement noted. “As a musician, he lived ‘the life’ for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies.
“At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband, and friend.
“No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one,” it stressed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in tears as he paid tribute to Downie and how he devoted the last chapter of his life to advocating for the rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country,” Trudeau noted.
“He wanted to make it better; he knew as great as we were, we need to be better than we are,” Trudeau added.
“That’s why this last year’s been devoted to Chanie Wenjack and to reconciliation,” he said. “This is something I’ve certainly drawn inspiration and strength from.
“We are less without Gord Downie.”
Downie, one of Canada’s most revered singer-songwriters, penned a steady stream of 1990s rock radio staples, including “New Orleans Is Sinking,” “Blow at High Dough,” “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan),” “Ahead By a Century” and “Bobcaygeon.”
While Hip albums released in the 2000s didn’t produce nearly as many hits, the band hung on to its unofficial status as Canada’s favourite rock band.
While the Hip frequently was described as quintessentially Canadian, Downie had dismissed the suggestion he set out to celebrate his homeland in song.
“I haven’t written too many political lyrics,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press in 2014.
“Nor have I written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant. . . .
“That stuff doesn’t interest me and I don’t even know if I could write that if I tried because I don’t really feel it,” he admitted.
“Social causes are quite obvious,” Downie added. “Music brings people together.
“So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”
In the aftermath of the shocking May, 2016 announcement that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the band said it would mount a tour–which many assumed would be the Hip’s last.
And he used the spotlight to focus more attention on the issues facing indigenous communities in Canada.
Interest was off the charts and tickets sold out nearly immediately.
Despite conflicting with its coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, the CBC broadcast the last show of the tour live–in the Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ont.–and thousands of fans also attended public viewing parties across the country to experience the band’s swan song.
An impassioned Downie led the group through a nearly three-hour set and acknowledged the country’s enthusiastic support.
“Thank you, people, for keeping me pushing and keeping me pushing,” he said from the stage, which prompted a “Gordie!” chant from the audience.
He used the national platform to call for more attention to the inequities faced by indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.
About two months later, Downie released the multimedia solo project “Secret Path,” which recounted the life of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.
“Secret Path” won three Juno Awards in April–best adult alternative album, songwriter of the year for Downie, and best recording package of the year for its presentation with a graphic novel.
While Downie didn’t attend the Juno festivities, he appeared in a pre-recorded acceptance speech during the telecast.
“First Nations have many, many stories like this one,” Downie said in reference to Wenjack’s experience being separated from his family and put in a residential school.
“My dream would be that this record with Jeff Lemire’s drawings might help people,” he added.
“Might give teachers something to help teach our young ones.”
In June, Downie was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada for his work in raising awareness of indigenous issues.
He also was set to be honoured by the Order of Canada, along with his bandmates, for “their contribution to Canadian music and for their support of various social and environmental causes.”
The Tragically Hip’s last release, “Man Machine Poem,” won the Juno for rock album of the year and the band also took home the group of the year prize, which was its third time winning the award among 11 nominations.