Gord Downie performs at WE Day in Toronto on Wednesday, October 19, 2016. Downie has been named The Canadian Press newsmaker of the year for 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Gord Downie performs at WE Day in Toronto on Wednesday, October 19, 2016. Downie has been named The Canadian Press newsmaker of the year for 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Gord Downie chosen as back-to-back Newsmaker of the year

Gord Downie was chosen as the Canadian Press Newsmaker for second consecutive year

Gord Downie only appeared in public a handful of times in 2017, but his calls for a more inclusive Canada resonated even in his absence.

Whether it was the poignant lyrics flowing through his recent albums or the heartfelt words he delivered in public, the Tragically Hip singer used every opportunity in his final months to speak out in support of Indigenous people in Canada.

Even after he died of brain cancer in October at age 53, Downie’s push for reconciliation continued to reverberate across the country.

His hope for a better Canada is one of the reasons editors and broadcasters say they selected him as Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year for the second straight time.

Downie collected 47 votes (53 per cent) in the annual Canadian Press survey of newsrooms across the country. The musician remains the only entertainer to receive the title in its 71-year history.

He’s also now among a select group of Canadians to be voted top newsmaker more than once. Others include former prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and activist athletes Terry Fox and Rick Hansen.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was second in this year’s poll with 11 votes (13 per cent), while new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh finished third with 10 votes (11 per cent).

“Most Canadians don’t really care about politicians — but Gord Downie seems to have touched so many hearts,” wrote Christina Spencer, editor of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial pages.

“Rarely have we mixed our tears of sadness and gratitude as we did for Gord Downie,” added Danny Kingsbury, national rock format director at Rogers Radio in Ottawa.

“His music and legacy and work with Indigenous communities will live on.”

Even though Canadians knew it was coming, news that Downie had succumb to an incurable form of brain cancer on Oct. 17 left many stunned.

It almost seemed at times like he could do the impossible — somehow defy science to overcome his terminal diagnosis.

He surprised doctors and fans alike with his boundless determination during the 2016 Hip tour. At the rousing last concert in Kingston, Ont., Downie offered hints of his next vision. Speaking to the audience, he expressed the urgency of drawing more attention to the inequities faced by Indigenous people. He called on the prime minister to lead by example.

Downie’s ”Secret Path” multimedia project, which was completed before his cancer diagnosis, became the guidebook in his last year as he delicately recounted the tragic final hours of Chanie Wenjack.

For many Canadians, it was the first time hearing the story of the 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died of starvation and exposure after escaping a residential school in 1966.

“His spirit touched Chanie Wenjack’s spirit,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“Even though they never physically met each other, I think in a spiritual way they knew and really bonded together.”

Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, worked closely with the Downie family over the past year and a half. He said it was impossible to predict how “Secret Path” would affect the wider conversation.

“None of us really could envision the impact,” he said. “To see it spread across the country was something … pretty meaningful.”

Fiddler credits Downie for shining a spotlight on some Indigenous issues, which he said led to progress in certain areas.

“We have more and more communities coming off the boiled water advisory list next month in Slave Falls,” he offered as one example.

“I would like to believe that Gord had a hand in those things.”

Exploring the injustices inflicted upon Indigenous people in Canadian history led the singer on a personal journey of reflection, said his brother Mike Downie.

“Gord said several times that the only thing that mattered to him was getting Canadians to become aware of Indigenous lives, start to right the wrongs and move in the direction of reconciliation,” he said.

“It was what he wanted to get done before his time was up.”

As the year stretched on, the reality of Downie’s mortality was harder to ignore. His appearances became increasingly rare.

He surprised Blue Rodeo concertgoers in February by walking on stage to sing “Lost Together” alongside Jim Cuddy and other close friends. The emotional moment would be Downie’s final public stage performance.

In June, he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his work in raising awareness of Indigenous issues.

On Canada Day weekend, Downie stood on a stage at Parliament Hill and encouraged a young crowd of We Day participants to ask questions about the history of residential schools. He emphasized that Indigenous children in some parts of Canada continue to travel great distances each day for school, likening it to “the pain, the torture and the death” in residential schools.

His comments stood to elevate concerns Indigenous leaders have expressed over the lack of education and health resources for young people in remote communities.

“It is still happening even though the residential school has gone away,” the ailing performer said.

“It’s time to listen to the stories of the Indigenous. To hear stories about now.”

He left the audience with an optimistic final thought as he looked to the next 150 years for the country.

“Yours is the first generation in the new and real Canada. I love you,” he said to applause.

“You and yours, the Indigenous, together will make this a true country now, one true to your word. The new 150 years, not the old one. The new one. Exciting and true.”

A few months later, he was gone.

On the streets of Kingston that sombre October day, the hometown boy’s voice was everywhere. Restaurants cranked up playlists of only Hip songs, while some fans blared their car stereos to drown out the pain of the loss.

Many talked about how Downie offered solace amid their family’s own cancer fights. Others reflected on how their perspectives of Canadian history were reshaped by his ardent support of Indigenous rights.

Those sentiments stretched across the country as local musicians covered Hip favourites and viewers watched a broadcast of “Long Time Running,” a documentary recounting the band’s final tour.

More Downie tributes are still in the works. A public memorial is being considered by the Hip’s members and their management, though no official date has been set.

And in Ontario, an opposition NDP member recently introduced a bill to create a poet laureate program in the province and name the legislation after Downie.

Carrying Downie’s message into the future now lies with his friends and the millions of Canadians he called on to make a difference.

The late singer established the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to serve as a catalyst in the movement towards reconciliation. Next year, the organization plans to escalate its approval of small grants that would unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and promote education in schools.

It’s a project Downie considered essential for the longer term. He’d witnessed slivers of progress while he was still alive, his brother Mike said, and he considered each of them a reason for hope.

“He could see that he had some impact,” Mike Downie said.

“I know Gord felt really good that he had maybe managed to move the needle a little bit.”

—-

David Friend, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A police car at the scene of a child’s death Friday, April 9, at the Falcon Nest Motel in Duncan. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
RCMP investigating child’s death at Duncan’s Falcon Nest Motel

First responders attended to a call about an unresponsive child at the… Continue reading

Brent Clancy, president of the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce, takes down the signs at the Lake Cowichan Visitor Centre, which closed its doors for good on Jan. 31. Mayor Bob Day says the possible creation of a Town tourism committee is not a response to the closure. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Town of Lake Cowichan looking to form tourism and housing committees

Decision not related to the Lake Cowichan Visitor Information Centre closure

“Representing the school district, legion, and Kaatza Station Museum left to right are Georgie Clark of the museum, Wilma Rowbottom of School District #66 and Ernie Spencer, representing the Legion. The museum and Legion, along with the Village will each take a piece of the old wood shop.” (The Lake News)
Lake Flashback: Soapboxes, woodshop split, taxes down

Remember these stories from Lake Cowichan?

Tim Schewe
Drivesmart column: Rules around bicycle lanes

The lane is often painted green to distinguish it from lanes intended for motor vehicles.

Robert’s column
Robert Barron column: New hospital shouldn’t charge for parking

Paying a parking meter is the last thing people visiting a hospital should have to worry about.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Most Read