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.
Downie’s chief oncologist, Dr. James Perry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said the musician’s willingness to go public with his illness was a “gift that he gave to the country.”
“He created unprecedented awareness for the brain tumour he has, glioblastoma,” Perry said in a statement, adding that the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research will help support a planned Brain Sciences Building.
“His legacy will be forever stamped on this disease.”
Former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page said Downie’s other “great and lasting contribution” was his commitment to raising awareness about Indigenous issues.
“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, in a way that I’ve never seen other artists do,” said Page, who got choked up during a phone interview.
An equally emotional Sean McCann, singer and former Great Big Sea guitarist, said he was also awed by Downie’s political activism in his final year.
“This is a man who did so much more than (politicians) who’ve spent 30-year careers avoiding issues,” 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.”
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.
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.
In a statement, Dan Aykroyd called Downie’s death “the end of an era.”
“Gord’s writing, voice, music, dancing and genuine energetic talent in service of us all will be vital forever in our national, common emotional core,” said Aykroyd, who helped the Hip get booked to perform on “Saturday Night Live” in 1995.
Former Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle said he always appreciated that Downie and his bandmates never let their success change them.
“They didn’t change their clothes. They didn’t move to Los Angeles or London. They didn’t stop writing about winters and snow and hockey games and start writing about surf boards and fast cars. They remained truly Canadian,” Doyle said.
“It was great to have bands like the Hip to sort of remind us that it’s totally OK to be ourselves. Total Canadiana, from start to finish. And just honesty. It’s not overly Canadian or underly Canadian, it was just honest. They were them.”
— With files from Maija Kappler