If I was your tuba
you’d take me everywhere
I’d be designed to
make you smile.
– Gord Downie
Canada lost its unofficial Poet Laureate this past week. Practically unknown outside his native land, except to other musicians and artists of the world, he was as Canadian a rock star as you could imagine: Quirky, intelligent, funny, humble, compassionate, weird, former goalie, hockey fan, and small town Ontario boy with a heart as big as all the provinces put together. He was an icon who shunned icon-hood and you can’t get much more Canadian than that. He wrote songs that told Canadian stories, featured Canadian heroes and villains, and named Canadian places (“Bobcaygeon” comes to mind). He was unashamed to be from Canada but not at all in-your-face about it… and you can’t get much more Canadian than that, either.
For me, Gord Downie was the artist who introduced me to Canada. Gord was the lead singer/song-writer for the band the Tragically Hip. The Hip have been making music together for over 30 years. I came to this country seventeen years ago. I had only heard of the Tragically Hip because, back in the late ’80’s, I had a Canadian roommate in college who played their debut album for me. Other than that, I never heard them on the radio in the United States and I didn’t think much about them during my years there.
Arriving in Canada in 2000 and flipping through radio stations, I became aware that it was the Hip that was being played on many, many formats – Classic rock, “real” rock, alternative rock, 80’s & 90’s, and the public broadcasts of CBC – their music seemed to be the soundtrack of the country, way more than that of any other Canadian musician or band. I didn’t get it at first. It was just another band, not particularly unique in sound or song structure. They didn’t chart any new musical waters. But I couldn’t help absorbing their music, trying to figure out their hold on this new country of mine.
It took my awhile but over the years I started to pick up on things, songs that made reference to this country, to events and places. Tom Thomson paddled past at the beginning of one song, Bill Barilko disappeared after winning the Cup for the Leafs in another, prisoners escaped from Millhaven maximum security prison in another, and the haunting sound of a loon eased me into the beginnings of one of my Hip favorites: “Wheat Kings”, a song that spoke of a late-breaking story on the CBC.
I didn’t hear any other music made by a Canadian band quite like this. It made me realize that there was, in fact, something very unique that the Tragically Hip brought to music – They brought Canada. In a land renowned for its ability to say “Sorry”, they were unapologetic about their subject matter. Amazing.
This, I came to realize, was all because of Gord.
Gord died this past week at the age of 53. About a year and a half ago we were given the sad news that he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. This news seemed to take the breath away from so many Canadians. It was then I realized how important this man was to the country. The Tragically Hip would embark on one more tour across the Canada, finishing in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario to perform a show broadcast live all over the country. I sat out in a park in Ottawa with about 2,000 other people, sitting on blankets and lawn chairs, watching the concert beamed in by satellite. Millions of Canadians watched that show all over the country, in big gatherings under the stars, in city parks, in bars, in basements. We all were there for Gord, for the crazy guy who wrote eccentric songs about the place and people he loved. And Canada loved him back. Amazing.
His legacy includes his work near the end of his life to make his own country aware of the need to repair the damage of residential schools and the dysfunctional and harmful relationship European Canadians have had with Native Canadians. He did it through words and music and by infusing himself into it, as he had always done. A “Secret Path” it is called, the true story of a young indigenous boy who escaped his residential school and attempted to walk the 600km back to his reserve; he died of exposure in route. The story had haunted Gord for many years. In his final show, it was clear the message he all wanted to give us: Work to make this better. He did his part and, in death, it feels like he’s passing the baton on to the rest of us.
Gord helped make Canadians proud of who they are, but not in any jingoistic sense. He made us proud that we can be strong but also compassionate people; that we can have a history to celebrate but also the strength to be willing to change the parts of our country that are sick and in need of a do-over.
When I think of it that way, the man has a remarkable legacy. Not bad for a strange kid from Amherstview, Ontario.
So long, Gord. Thanks for the whimsy. Thanks for the authentic madness. Thanks for being our tuba. Thanks for being someone we can take with us anywhere. You walk among the stars, now, where you belong.