I was maybe six or seven when I first heard Gord Downie. Downie was my older cousin’s musical hero, and that made him mine as well for a time. Yet I think even at that young age, I realized there was more to it than that. Listening to Downie sing about Bill Barilko, Hugh MacLennan and Tom Thomson was something I had never heard before or since in a media landscape so dominated by American iconography.
For thirty years, Downie and his quintet of Kingston native musicians have gifted Canada with nothing short of a national mythology. It's no surprise that the man who rhymed “Jacques Cartier” with “right this way” is a capital-C Canadian. The same way that our southern neighbours have their brand of Americana, I would argue it's primarily thanks to Downie and The Tragically Hip that we have anything resembling “Canadiana” at all.
We’ve heard thousands of songs about Los Angeles and New York, but there’s only one about Bobcaygeon, Ont. Still, though, he was more than just a simple chronicler. He used his platform to speak for those who cannot, like in “Wheat Kings” speaking on the wrongfully imprisoned David Milgaard. He took no part in burnishing the harsh truths of Canada, like the treatment of indigenous peoples. There was no hint of the baseless and empty patriotism that exists in much of American music.
I’m barely a musician, but Downie has long been in a pantheon of true national artists, elevating Canadian stories to the level of the Alamo without becoming a mouthpiece for jingoism, while writing truly excellent poetry that spoke to an entire nation. Indeed, the closing show of The Hip's final tour last summer was viewed by around a third of the country, something the New York Times described as “an unparalleled moment of national pride laced with sorrow.”
If you’re aspiring to any kind of artistry, you can look to Downie as a way to do it right. Better than any Canadian artist, he understood the difference between community and individuality, being both proud and uncompromising in his view of his home and native land.
It’s this unyielding view that in turn yielded a hopeful vision of Canada’s future. Far from a cynic, his compassion was boundless, and The Hip’s brand of everyman rock remained grounded even as he ascended as Canada’s unofficial poet laureate.
In a tearful statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau eulogized Downie: “Gord was my friend, but Gord was everyone’s friend. He knew, as great as we were, we needed to be better than we are.”
Often times Canadian artists get drowned out by a swarm of American culture. It’s against this swarm that Gord pushed me and many other Canadians to be more, giving us all something to be proud of.