Remembering a Canadian legend

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When I heard the news that Gord Downie had passed away, I felt feelings of contempt wash over me.

Those feelings were mostly directed inside, I’ll admit, but let me explain.

Growing up in southern Ontario I can confidently say that I had hundreds of opportunities to see The Tragically Hip; some of them even being free concerts.

Money was never an issue when it came to seeing them, it was always time. I was too busy – with school and relationships and whatever else was going on at the time – to think about how much I might value the experience.

Then, out of nowhere, Gord announced his illness and, like an all-too-perfectly-timed marketing ploy, ticket prices began to skyrocket.

My cynical self questioned the motivations behind this historical concert series. Looking back on it now, I was mostly just disappointed in myself for missing out on all of the opportunities I had to see them play in all of their glory.

It feels weird to say it now, but The Tragically Hip are one of those bands that you just assumed would always be around.

Growing up in Canada their music is ubiquitous, and it was only based on a related ignorance – an assumption that Gord would somehow miraculously pull through and that we would all remember this as the first of many farewells — that I decided seeing them live was something that could wait until later.

I’m ashamed to admit it now but — because of that feeling — I couldn’t accurately react to his death on a personal level. The news washed over me and drifted out of my mind so quickly.

It was only after a few weeks of seeing his face on the Apple Music home page every single day that I began to process what his loss meant to me — what his loss meant to my fellow Canadians.

When I describe the importance of The Tragically Hip to someone it feels like I am describing maple syrup or poutine. Navigating through life as a kid growing up in Canada meant that I would be confronted with at least one of their songs or stories on a weekly, if not, daily basis.

Gord Downie was our generation’s Stompin’ Tom Connors, and I guess I’m mostly just scared because now I’m not sure if anyone will ever be capable of filling his shoes.

Learning about a real-life prison escape that happened in Kingston via “38 Years Old” or Steven Truscott’s controversial case as describe in “Wheat Kings” always felt surreal to me. It made me feel like I was a part of this ever-evolving and infinitely fascinating portion of history.

Listening to songs like “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” taught me that Canadian history, rich as it may be, is also full of interesting and shocking stories. Listening to songs like “Fifty Mission Cap” reminded me that, no matter what anyone says, the Toronto Maple Leafs will always hold an important place in Canadian history.

Songwriter, poet, artist, storyteller; if you ask me you might as well just add “Canadian historian” to the list.

And of course, after spending years exposing the beauty of Canada’s underbelly, Gord would use his massive reach to draw attention to some less-proud moments in Canadian history.

His second-last solo effort, Secret Path — which was accompanied by graphic novel and film components — was a concept album that told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who died of exposure after escaping from a residential school.

While it’s not the be-all, end-all for reconciliation, it’s an incredibly selfless gesture, and one that came at a time where you’d expect almost the complete opposite from someone.

For that reason alone, I feel that Gord Downie deserves all the praise and recognition. But I’d also like to thank him personally, because he made me feel like it was cool to be Canadian.

Every time I pass Fiddler’s Green — or see Bobcaygeon on the map — I feel like I am retracing the steps of a legend. Not all that different from thinking “my back still aches” every time I hear the word Tillsonburg.

Gord Downie was our generation’s Stompin’ Tom Connors, and I guess I’m mostly just scared because now I’m not sure if anyone will ever be capable of filling his shoes.

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