The Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC) is hoping a tribute concert to late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie will help pave the way for continued work on truth and reconciliation with Indigenous communities in Canada.
Downie spent the last year of his life creating awareness about the impact of residential schools and issues affecting First Peoples.
His death last year from an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma was felt by fans across the country who in the months prior were packing concert halls for the Tragically Hip’s final tour.
BPAC executive director Tammy Fox says in that moment, she knew she wanted to honour the man, the musician and the activist for change.
In an effort to carry on his work, Fox has gathered Downie’s friends, among them Indigenous artists and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation Chief R. Stacey Laforme, for an evening of performances, memories and education.
“It’s so easy to put a foot wrong and I think when we invited artists to participate they had that same trepidation,” said Fox.
“We all want to do something but we’re scared we’ll do the wrong thing but as Gord put that call to action out there, just do something.”
BPAC plans donate $5,000 in ticket sales from the event to the Gord Downie Chanie Wenjack fund. Fox says she will carry the event forward for five years. The goal is to donate a total of $25,000.
The fund was created by Downie before he died. It supports education about Indigenous culture and history in classrooms and initiatives that bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together to promote reconciliation.
The organization is recognizing BPAC’s support by making the venue the first of its kind in Canada to be designated as a legacy space.
“Basically a safe place for people to come and learn about the Indigenous culture, to learn about truth and reconciliation, to ask questions, to find out what they can do in their own lives and communities,” said Fox.
One of the artists honouring Downie on Wednesday, Oct. 17, is Hamilton’s Tom Wilson.
He says the tribute will be very personal, in part because he knew Downie. His first encounter, he says was at the Prince George hotel in Kingston in the mid-1980s, when the Tragically Hip were just starting out. Members of the band, he said, looked like they were still in high school. Despite their youthful appearance he invited the Hip to open for his band, the Florida Razors.
“He was a rare bird,” said Wilson. He was able to fuse young intellectuals, young grad students in university with knuckleheads and hockey players.”
“Name the band that has brought Canada together the way the Tragically Hip has,” he said.
Part of Wilson’s tribute will be a reading from his book Beautiful Scars that was published in 2017. It dives into the discovery of his Mohawk roots. A few years ago, it was revealed to him that he was adopted. The person he believed to be his cousin, a Mohawk woman named Janie, was, in fact, his mother.
While in the midst of writing the book, Wilson ran into Downie in Edmonton where he said they spoke about his trip to the Kahnawake First Nations reserve outside Montreal where he met his brothers and sisters for the first time in his life.
Wilson says, much like Downie, he is dedicated to being an ambassador for truth and reconciliation because he’s building the same bridges in his own life.
He says he hopes the tribute concert will help.
Legacy: A Tribute to Gord Downie will take place at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre on Oct. 17, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $59.