Canada may have lost one of its most beloved musical icons with the passing of Gord Downie, but the frontman of The Tragically Hip is also being remembered as a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights and reconciliation.
A year ago today, Downie released Secret Path, his fifth solo album, and the last to be released before his death Tuesday night.
Secret Path chronicled the life and death of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who fled a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966, only to die of hunger and cold exposure while trying to find his way home.
The concept album was accompanied by the launch of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, set up to “jumpstart reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.” The fund offers grants up to $10,000 to grassroots projects working to further Indigenous rights.
“Gord restored the dignity and innocence of a little boy who only wanted to go home, and we have been humbled by his determination to share the story of Chanie and all of our youth who never made it home,” Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said of the Secret Path/Chanie Wenjack Fund project, which blurred the line between creative undertaking and social justice venture.
Downie’s death was termed an “incredible loss to Canada” by Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett.
“I think we know that as he goes to the spirit world, he will still guide us on this project of reconciliation which isn’t just for Indigenous people, that non-Indigenous people have a tremendous role to play as we come out of this dark chapter of colonization and racism,” Bennett said.
As news of Downie’s death began filtering in Wednesday, many Indigenous organizations and ordinary Canadians alike took to Twitter to remember his contributions.
In August 2016, Downie used the occasion of The Tragically Hip’s last ever concert to draw attention to the plight of First Nations communities, telling the crowd that he believed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who was in the audience — was the right person to further the Indigenous cause.
A few months later, the Assembly of First Nations honoured Downie by presenting him with a star blanket and giving him the honourary name “Wicapi Omani,” Lakota for “man who walks among the stars.”
The rocker broke down in tears during the ceremony, which took place in Gatineau, Que., with Trudeau in attendance.
Downie’s work also led to him being appointed a member of the Order of Canada in June of this year; he was hailed by Governor General David Johnston for his devotion to “promoting dialogue about residential schools and working towards reconciliation.”
The following month, he made a rare public appearance at Parliament Hill to take part in a We Day event coinciding with Canada 150 festivities.
“Now we begin on a new 150 years,” he told the crowd.
“We leave behind the first 150 years, the ones with one big problem — trying to wipe out our Indigenous people, to take their minds and hearts, to give them the choice, ‘become white or get lost.'”
He added that contemporary Indigenous children continue to face a variety of abuses, “even though the residential school has gone away.”
Downie’s interest in First Nations advocacy came to the fore during the last year of his life, aided by Secret Path, but he previously wrote numerous The Tragically Hip songs that concerned themselves with First Nations issues, including Now the Struggle Has a Name (2009) and Goodnight Attawapiskat (2012).