It was a day we all knew would come. But that doesn’t make the death of Gord Downie, at age 53 from brain cancer, any easier to digest.
The passing of the Tragically Hip frontman leaves a Great Lakes-sized hole in the Canadian landscape, artistic and otherwise. He wasn’t simply a musician. He was one of the good guys, a patriot who, in recent months, dedicated his time to addressing Indigenous issues in Canada.
It was his dying wish to reconcile our country’s dark past with what he hoped would become its bright future, and he did so while knowing he could die at any moment.
For many, that was simply Gord, a caring individual whose songs about Canadian figures — from former hockey player Bill Barilko to the wrongly imprisoned David Milgaard — brought together listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
Fame didn’t suit Downie. “This idea that we would be able to take our music and emblazon it on our shield, swords held high, and go out into the world is absurd,” Downie told me during a 2003 interview, but he endured.
“What an extraordinary life that was lived by an extraordinary Canadian,” Premier John Horgan told reporters Wednesday, echoing the tearful sentiments of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Over the course of a 30-year career, the Hip and Downie forged deep relationships with cities across the country, with the band eventually making its way onto a Canada Post stamp. At first, Hip shows were simply tour stops on a concert calendar.
But over time, they became unofficial family reunions. People travelled to and from Victoria to see the group perform; if you were a fan of the band, you were a fan of the band for life.
Downie became notorious for his off-the-cuff rants and theatrical asides. Perhaps the cruelest twist of all was that treatment of his cancer, glioblastoma, damaged the area of the brain responsible for memory, forcing him to use teleprompters during the band’s farewell tour.
Downie was born Feb. 6, 1964, in Amherstview, Ont. After moving to Kingston as child, he met future bandmates Johnny Fay, Robbie Baker, Gord Sinclair and Paul Langlois. It was in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016, that these same five friends played their final show. Downie leaves behind his wife, Laura Leigh Usher, and four children.
Nothing about the final months of Downie’s life felt rushed. He received his cancer diagnosis in December 2015, but chose not to reveal it publicly until five months later. He recorded and released a solo record, Secret Path, one year ago and has another solo record due for release Oct. 27. It was rumoured that another tour was in the works, with a date pencilled in for Victoria.
Morgan Brooker of Victoria saw the band perform 46 times, including one of the two Vancouver stops on its final tour.
“I wanted to have as many different experiences with them as I could,” he said.
“They always left me wanting to come back for more.”
The group kicked off its farewell tour of the country in Victoria on July 22, 2016. Fittingly, but not surprisingly, it drew the largest attendance in the history of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. The band has always done well in Victoria, one of the first cities outside of its hometown to fully embrace the group during its early days.
They became “the unofficial house band” at local radio station The Q, which first went to air in 1987, the same year the Tragically Hip released its debut E.P. The station continued to support the band through its career, as did the area as a whole: When the producers of Rock the Shores created the Colwood festival in 2012, it was with the Hip as the headlining act. The concert drew 12,500 people, the largest paid single-day concert in Greater Victoria history at the time.
Highlights are easy to come by, including a riveting and electric sold-out show at the Royal Theatre in 1992, which many consider to be their breakout as a group. The Hip never outgrew Victoria, even when we lacked the requisite venues. They simply tagged on an extra night at a woefully undersized room to ensure everyone had the opportunity to sing along.
Long Time Running, the documentary chronicling the band’s final tour, screened in Victoria last month to rave reviews. The film (which is expected to air on CTV on Nov. 12 and Netflix on Nov. 26) was co-directed by Victoria-raised filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and produced by former University of Victoria students Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen.
Baichwal’s thoughts on making the film mirror the relationship Hip fans had with the group.
“In some ways, it was the hardest documentary we’ve made — because there was no distance or pretense of objectivity possible,” Baichwal said at the time.
“It was a kind of reciprocal love letter from the band to the fans, from fans to the band, and from us to both.”
The Hip loved Canada, and Canadians loved the Hip in return.
It’s a relationship that won’t soon be forgotten.