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Tributes pour in for Gord Downie: ‘We already miss Gord the music fan’

Artist Jeff Lemire created this illustration Wednesday for Gord Downie. The two collaborated to create Secret Path, the novel accompanying Mr. Downie’s solo album that tells the story of the death of a young boy who tried to escape a residential school.

Courtesy of Jeff Lemire

Few artists have recast Canadiana in their image like Gord Downie. When his death at age 53 was announced Wednesday, condolences poured in with equal heft from Ottawa's highest offices to gear-filled tour vans in Portugal.

The Tragically Hip frontman's kindness will be immortalized as much as his music: For all the slow-burns and anthems he spilled onto airwaves, those who got to know him – and those who simply got to hear him – will long remember his grace, too.

Mr. Downie spent the past three decades celebrating Canadian identity through song, and was richly celebrated for it from Golden, B.C., to Isle aux Morts, Nfld. He died Tuesday night, according to a statement on the Hip's website, with his children and family nearby.

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He had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December, 2015, and revealed it the following May, just before the Hip released their latest album, Man Machine Poem. The announcement heralded a year and a half of national mourning, including a final Hip tour with Mr. Downie that summer.

It culminated in Canada's ultimate "where-were-you-when" moment: a heartfelt final tearjerker of a concert in the Hip's hometown of Kingston that was broadcast across the country.

In the face of his illness, Mr. Downie spent his final months campaigning for a better, healthier Canada and world.

"No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord," his family wrote Wednesday.

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"No one."

He helped launch the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, committed to working toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through cross-cultural education, and the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research, the latter of which has raised $1.7-million to date.

Sheila North Wilson, a grand chief who represents Northern Manitoba First Nations, had joined Mr. Downie on a trip to Ogoki Post in September, 2016, to meet with the family of Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year-old who froze to death after running away from a residential school.

Mr. Downie was seeking their permission to use the story on his album, Secret Path. "He portrayed the true picture of what reconciliation is by standing up for Indigenous people and standing with them, showing love and compassion," Ms. North Wilson said.

Calling him "our buddy Gord," a choked-up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa that Mr. Downie "loved this country with everything he had and not just loved it in a nebulous, 'Oh, I love Canada' way. He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life." Parliament Hill's Peace Tower flag will fly at half mast in Mr. Downie's honour until sunset of the day of a funeral or memorial.

Forming in the mid-eighties, the Hip emerged from Kingston as a force in blues rock with songs such as New Orleans is Sinking, but as their phenomenon grew, so too did their sound, in both style and appeal. Through songs such as Fifty Mission Cap and Ahead by a Century, Mr. Downie sung his poetry with both coos and howls, helping the band become kings of CanCon.

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But it was on the road that Canadians got up close and personal with the Hip – and with the musicians they hand-picked to play with them on tour.

Mr. Downie's influence will live on not just through his music, but through that of the artists whose boats he and his band lifted with their rising tide. Rheostatics, Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts Band, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Wintersleep, Arkells, and so many more: The list of artists the Hip have nurtured who have risen to acclaim is a staggering spectrum of the rock side of Canadiana.

"There's nothing more exciting for fans of Canadian rock music than to see their homegrown bands get to open for The Tragically Hip," said Max Kerman, the frontman of the Juno winners Arkells, who spent a cross-Canada tour with the Hip in 2013. "You get anointed."

The elder band has long been known for treating – and paying – their touring comrades well, but Mr. Kerman says the band gave him a fine education, too. Mr. Downie constantly honed his on-stage performance, his stories, his dance moves. "He never stopped working. That guy got hungrier the older that he got."

Halifax singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett was on the road two provinces away last August when the Hip played their barn-burner at Kingston's Rogers K-Rock Centre. Thinking of his old tourmate, Mr. Plaskett dashed off an e-mail a few hours before the show.

"I could only imagine how much his phone was buzzing that night and I certainly expected no response," Mr. Plaskett told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. "He wrote me back immediately. Here was a man, mere hours before what must have been one of the most intense shows of his life, taking the time to answer e-mails and send love down the line to his friends."

Even into his final months, Mr. Downie remained an active supporter and fan of Canadian music. During the Toronto Raptors' fateful playoff round against the Cleveland Cavaliers in May, he emerged at halftime in his trademark denim jacket to embrace another CanCon king – Drake – who first payed homage by bowing down to the Hip frontman.

A few weeks before that, he quietly showed up at a downtown Toronto concert by the genre-bending Welland singer-songwriter Daniel Romano, to express his support and take in the show. The artists wound up speaking for a couple of hours.

"Gord Downie will remain the last great cultural coalesce-ist," Mr. Romano wrote in an e-mail as his tour van pulled into Lisbon. "He brought mysterious, philosophical, reflective, dense, bold and profound lyrical thought to the full spectrum of human consciousness. Like a burglar in the night, he crept in and filled even the most ignorant, oppressive and hate-filled minds with subtle secret wisdom and liberation."

Mr. Downie embraced his fellow musicians with a grand enthusiasm. After referencing the New Brunswick band Eric's Trip in song, and taking them on tour in the nineties, he would later collaborate with member Julie Doiron with his solo backing band, the Country of Miracles. And he came to befriend Kevin Drew, a central figure of the Toronto collective Broken Social Scene and something of a de facto inheritor of his quest to spread Canadian song. The pair hung out regularly for years; Mr. Drew has called Mr. Downie a "pillar" and "great educator."

"When you hang out with a lyricist like Downie, you're learning," Mr. Drew told The Globe in 2016. The respect was mutual and tangibly reciprocated: Mr. Drew produced Mr. Downie's forthcoming solo record Introduce Yerself and co-produced its forebear, Secret Path.

Just as music consumed Mr. Downie, so did the personalities behind it. He had a habit of showing up at Toronto's legendary Horseshoe Tavern unannounced, just to talk music with owners and staff. "We already miss Gord the music fan," Horseshoe owner Jeff Cohen told The Globe.

Every time Mr. Downie ran into Tyson Parker, who spent 15 years doing communications for the band with Universal Music Canada, their conversation picked up exactly where it left off. "He authentically really, really cared for people," Mr. Parker said. "You see that in his lyrics."

Steve Jordan, the founder of the Polaris Music Prize, has known Mr. Downie since Mr. Jordan's days as a Kingston radio DJ; he spent the better part of three decades watching Mr. Downie's earnestness in action. "In any conversation I've been a part of or witnessed, he had a keen interest in what you do, what you have to say, what's going on with you," Mr. Jordan said. "He took a lot of that and worked it into his lyrics, and himself. He was like a better version of us because he was us."

Mr. Downie's work expanded beyond music: He published a book of poetry, Coke Machine Glow, and collaborated with dancers Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt on a dance performance piece, Beside Each Other. In an e-mail, Ms. Nann, artistic director of Dreamwalker Dance Company, said that she and husband, Andy Maize, of the band Skydiggers "are full with love and gratitude to know Gord as friend, family and artistic collaborator. His love, influence and music flow through us, always and forever."

With a report from Joe Friesen

Remembering Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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