Samantha Nutt is the founder of War Child Canada.
My heart is broken. Shattered in ways that feel incomprehensible, though I knew this day was coming. I could not prepare for it – I did not want to accept its inevitability.
Our beloved friend and Canadian icon Gord Downie has passed away.
I don't imagine he was ever comfortable with the word "icon." In person, he was modest, self-effacing, almost shy. He transformed himself on stage with twists and turns, grimaces and sequined hats, his signature handkerchief tucked into the back of his belt. He could be hard to talk to, but only because you could not help but feel that somehow he was operating on another plane. A plane where life and poetry collide, and from where he interpreted thoughts, feelings and stories in ways that only the truest artist can – he taught us about ourselves.
I would not be overstating the point when I say that without Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, War Child Canada would not exist. In the late nineties, we were an idea – an aspiration about how to build a different kind of humanitarian organization for women and children in war zones. When we asked for help, almost everyone passed. I was told by more than a few self-proclaimed experts that "the cause wasn't marketable." I heard "no" so often that it became all that I expected to hear from those with money, power, celebrity or influence. No, this issue doesn't matter to us. No, we can't support you. No, we won't offer any pro bono services. No. No. No.
Gord Downie was the first "yes." I approached him in New York's Central Park on Canada Day 2000 (of course) to headline a concert we were hoping to stage a few months later in conjunction with an international conference on war-affected children taking place in Winnipeg. It would be our launch and our only chance. I was given five minutes with him to make my case, and I knew it was the longest of shots. The Hip were the biggest band in the country and I was asking them to perform for free. Gord looked at me as I stumbled all over my plea and, with his distinctively boyish grin, said only, "I'm in." I was so stunned, I wasn't quite sure what to do, nor was I convinced we could even pull it off. More than 80,000 people showed up to that event at The Forks, which raised more than $300,000 for War Child Canada's programs. It was the start of something that would grow into an organization that has supported more than two-million children worldwide. While he would never have claimed credit for it, or boasted of his early intervention, our organization is part of Gord Downie's beautiful legacy. His unyielding conviction that children everywhere – Indigenous or war-affected – deserve our compassion and concern.
Today I am filled with grief, but also gratitude. Gratitude that this extraordinary Canadian came into our lives, inspired us, challenged us and proved that cynicism does not always prevail. Gifted and immeasurably generous. This is how I will remember Gord Downie. I thought I would have more time to tell him that, over many more years. We all deserved that – Gord most of all.