I woke up on October 18th to the Canadian headline: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip Dies at 53. It was evident that much of Canada seemed saddened by the news. My social media feeds were filled with messages of condolence and the media repeated the name Downie again and again with shaky voices and somber tones. But if you know me well you may wonder why I would choose to write anything about this particular Canadian, after all I have little passion for music, Canadiana or pop culture. In fact, prior to Gord Downie’s terminal illness becoming public knowledge – I didn’t even know who the Tragically Hip’s frontman was, nor was I anything but vaguely familiar with the lyrics, “ Ahead by a Century.” It was the certainty of his death that made his name recognizable. But more than that, it was his ability to call Canada to attention regarding our history and future with Indigenous people that made me pay attention.
So forgive me, but it is not Gord Downie’s music, lyrics or icon status that I want to write about today.
Justin Trudeau, our Prime Minister has a lot to consider in the coming days: trade deals with America and Mexico in the age of Trump, the politics of tax reform, and Quebec’s religious neutrality legislation, just to name a few. Despite the vast number of news stories that held Trudeau’s name, the one that stood out this week was his response to Gord Downie’s death. Justin Trudeau was emotional as he paid tribute to this Canadian Icon. Stating, among other things, that we are less of a country in light of his death. I don’t know the relationship that Trudeau shared with Downie – how close they were, how much they shared with one another – but I do know that Trudeau’s response to Downie’s death brought more questions than answers to mind as I began to wonder what other parts of Canada could bring our Prime Minister to tears? Which other deaths or losses cause him to stand before cameras with such obvious emotion? Perhaps crying for the death of Gord Downie is more politically acceptable than crying for the state of a nation.
No matter how deeply I am drawn to politics, it is not the politics of Trudeau or the Liberal party that I want to write about today.
During the week of Downie’s death, I witnessed radio shows, online commentary and social media posts mourning the death of this Canadian legend. Much of the public citing the name bestowed upon Downie by the Assembly of First Nations, “Man who walks among the stars,” as they said goodbye to a musical front man. I heard Canadian musicians, fans and media all tout their fascination for a man that many had never met – in awe of his talent, but also in awe of what he stood for. Their voices filled with emotion as they spoke about Downie’s Canada, their eyes filling with tears as they spoke about Canada without their hero. All well and good… but is it enough?
No matter their momentary sympathy it is not Canada’s response to Downie’s death, that is not what I want to write about today.
Instead, I want to write about the one things that made me pay attention to Gord Downie in my 36 years of life: his poignant connection to Canada’s Indigenous people. He was not afraid to place Canada’s hidden history on a pedestal for all to see, for all to pay attention to.
He was not afraid to uncover and declare that injustice is a part of the Canadian narrative.
He was not afraid to declare that Canada is both a nation of beauty and one with stories of horror.
And somehow, I sense that what brought Downie to tears is quite different than what Canada and our Prime Minister have been tearing up about over the past several days.
Somehow I imagine that Downie, who chose to stand in solidarity with the truth of our Indigenous people, would suggest we cry less for him and more for what we have yet to accomplish as Canadians: reconciliation and equality.Perhaps Downie would suggest we cry less for him & more for what we have yet to accomplish as Canadians Click To Tweet
We live in a prosperous nation with access to water, food and freedom, yet there remain far too many Indigenous communities that lack access to what we take for granted. There are communities that in 2017 have dirty water pouring from taps, boil water advisories that have been present for years, the loss of life and hope to suicide as a daily reality, and the challenge of living with a stained history of injustice that is just being uncovered, taught and validated several decades too late. Downie considering the state of Canada’s Indigenous people and said this several months ago:
“Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there’s 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate, and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school,”1
And it seems he could be right, that another 150 years are required to see this wounds of the past and the present healed and made right.
As I write I have but one hope: that in the midst of mourning a Canadian celebrity – let’s take a moment to shed tears, to hang our flags at half mast, to sing songs of despair for our country, for those who were oppressed and for those who remain oppressed. Let’s call on our Prime Minister to mourn the lack of access to clean water across our country. Let’s call on one another to mourn the lack of equality that defines life for too many in this country.
Let’s mourn for the very things that the one we celebrate was, himself, mourning.