TORONTO – As Canadian musicians tearfully reflected on the legacy of Gord Downie on Wednesday, many used a word the late Tragically Hip frontman himself belted out onstage in his signature howl: “Courage.”
Downie’s advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples, his fortitude in touring one last time, and his fundraising efforts during his fight with terminal brain cancer were incredibly brave and galvanized a nation in a way that will be felt for decades, said his peers.
“He’s a national hero,” said Rush frontman Geddy Lee. “There are lots of different ways that people handle this kind of thing and mostly, if you look at people like David Bowie, et cetera, how they handled their illnesses, they chose to handle it very quietly — and he did not.
“He wanted to go out doing what he loved to do, and trying to do as much good with the time he had left, so for me that’s a courageous act.”
In May 2016, Downie revealed his diagnosis with glioblastoma, an incurable form of cancer. He died Tuesday night “with his beloved children and family close by,” according to a statement on the Tragically Hip’s website. He was 53.
“I think that he took that personal tragedy of his own illness and used it in a most admirable way, and in a way that I think is helping Canada and Canadians move forward into our next century,” said former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page, who got choked up during a phone interview.
“This is a man who did so much more than (politicians) who’ve spent 30-year careers avoiding issues,” added an equally emotional Sean McCann, singer and former Great Big Sea guitarist.
“He advanced the reconciliation (with Indigenous Peoples), he put the pressure on (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau — hopefully it will work.”
In his October 2016 multimedia project “Secret Path,” Downie told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died while trying to escape an Ontario residential school in 1966. He also staged several “Secret Path” concerts, including one last year in Toronto that was set to be broadcast by the CBC on Sunday.
“I think his legacy is going to be how brave he was. You put yourself in his situation, what would you do? What he chose to do was be open about it and tell the truth, and not only that, pursue it and to take up a cause other than himself,” said McCann.
“I live in Ottawa where politicians love to say cool (stuff) all the time and they actually do very little and Gord went out and (said), ‘Speak the truth and then go and try and fix it.”
While the world knew his cancer was terminal, the news of his death still had many in shock.
“We were waiting for the shoe to drop but for a while there it looked like Gord would live forever,” said McCann, who planned to spend the rest of the day walking and listening to Downie’s music.
“Quite frankly this has hit me pretty hard,” added Lee, pausing for a moment so he wouldn’t cry.
“I think when we saw him up there (on stage) we thought he could beat the devil. To wake up to that news (of his death) just reminds us of how vulnerable we all are.
“It’s a terrible loss for this country and it’s a terrible loss to what Canadian music is. It’s a profound loss of an amazing person.”
As a lyricist, Downie was known for adding a poetic touch to songs about the Canadian experience, which won’t be forgotten, said Page, who called the Hip singer “the best frontman in Canadian music, ever.”
“(He had) the most commanding presence and (was an) incredible lyricist, and he had an incredible connection both with his band … and with the audience. He could just hold a room absolutely rapt. And fearless, totally fearless,” Page said.
Lee has a theory as to why the Hip was never as popular internationally as they were in Canada.
“I think that the Hip’s music needs repeated exposure,” said Lee, who had Downie over to his house for dinner a few times over the years.
“I think the more you listen to the Hip, the more you love them.
“There’s a lot of nuance in what Gord wrote and I think if you’re just exposed briefly to their music, it’s easy to just write it off as straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll.
“But the more you listen to it, the more you appreciate all that nuance and the more the music comes to life for you.”
— With files from Maija Kappler