October 17, 2017 – Gord Downie was born February 6, 1964 in Amherstview, Ontario, and raised in Kingston, Ontario, along with his two brothers Mike and Patrick. He was the son of Lorna (Neal) and Edgar Charles Downie, a traveling salesman. In Kingston, he befriended the musicians who would become The Tragically Hip, while attending the downtown Kingston high school Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute.
Downie formed the Tragically Hip with Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Davis Manning, and Gord Sinclair in 1983. Saxophone player Davis Manning left the band and guitarist Paul Langlois joined in 1986. Originally, the band started off playing cover songs in bars and quickly became famous once MCA Records president Bruce Dickinson saw them performing at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and offered them a record deal.
In the years that followed Downie and the Tragically Hip became legends in Canada, more so than in the rest of the world, probably because of the incorporation of Downie’s stories and myths about life in Canada in his songs, and of course his wild antics and rantings on stage.
By the end of the century Downie began pursuing a solo career with the release of Coke Machine Glow in 2001. He published his first poetry and prose collection alongside the album and under the same title. The backing musicians, credited as The Goddamned Band, consisted of indie rock band The Dinner Is Ruined, Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers and singer-songwriter Julie Doiron.
He released his second solo album, Battle of the Nudes, in 2003 before returning to the studio with The Tragically Hip. His third solo effort, The Grand Bounce, was released in 2010. Both it and Battle of the Nudes are credited as Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles.
In addition to his solo works, Downie collaborated with several fellow Canadian and international artists. His most famous Canadian collaborations are with Richard Terfry (better known as Buck 65), Dallas Green of City and Colour and Alexisonfire, the Sadies and Fucked Up. Terfry collaborated with Downie on the song Whispers of the Waves off the album 20 Odd Years. Terfry composed the track and with the help of Charles Austen, his co-writer, decided Downie’s voice would be the best fit for their song. In 2008, Downie appeared as a guest vocalist on City and Colour’s single “Sleeping Sickness“.
In 2014, Downie released an album with the Sadies called And the Conquering Sun. He commented on working with the Sadies, saying, “I enjoy getting together with those guys; it’s a whole other universe. They’re writing all the music and I’m writing all the lyrics and we’re coming up with some neat stuff. You do it for the company but I’m genuinely shocked by the themes and things you touch base on and the music you’re singing to. That’s really compelling to me.”
Movies and other visuals
Downie had cameo appearances in the movie Men with Brooms, in which the Tragically Hip play a curling team. Downie also made a cameo appearance in the 2008 indie drama Nothing Really Matters, directed by Jean-Marc Piché. Downie also appears in the Trailer Park Boys movie The Big Dirty, in which he and Rush’s Alex Lifeson play a pair of police officers. Later, he and other members of the band can be seen in the episode of Trailer Park Boys entitled “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys”, in which he is harassed while eating a bologna sandwich at a singles dance. Downie was also featured in the sitcom Corner Gas in the episode “Rock On!” in which the Tragically Hip are shown as a local band practising in the main character’s garage. Colin James is also featured in the same episode. Downie also appeared in Michael McGowan’s 2008 film, One Week. A documentary film, Long Time Running, about the Tragically Hip’s summer 2016 cross-Canada farewell concert tour, premiered at The Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2017.
Downie was heavily involved in environmental movements, especially issues concerning water rights. He was board member of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. With Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Downie helped work on a cause to prevent a cement company from burning tires for fuel. He was also a part of the Swim Drink Fish Music club, a project that unites artists and environmentalists in a music club to raise money for Waterkeeper organizations in Canada.
In February 2012 in Fort Albany, Ontario, Downie and the Tragically Hip played at the Great Moon Gathering, a yearly educational conference that takes place in various communities along Northern Ontario’s James Bay coast. Its focus is on youth learning and combining Cree education with the contemporary world. The venue was small and not typical of the band. Author Joseph Boyden, who invited them, said their motivation was to “initiate a guerrilla act of love for a people who are so thoroughly under-represented but now, somehow, overexposed for only their shortcomings. A guerrilla act of love to show the rest of the country what strength and artistry, grace and humor the Cree possess.” In addition to the Tragically Hip’s performance, Downie sang a song with a local band, Northern Revolution. The song “Goodnight Attawapiskat” from the album Now for Plan A was a result of this trip.
On 13 October 2016, Downie and his brother Mike, along with the Wenjack family, announced the founding of The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The Fund is a part of Downie’s legacy and commitment to Canada’s First Peoples. Chanie Wenjack is a young boy who died trying to escape a residential school, who is at the centre of Downie’s Secret Path project. The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund operates out of the Toronto Foundation.
At the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Quebec, on 6 December 2016, National Chief Perry Bellegarde honored Downie with an eagle feather, a symbol of the creator above, for his support of the indigenous peoples of Canada. Bellegarde also bestowed on Downie an honorary aboriginal name, Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for “man who walks among the stars.”
Downie took to Parliament Hill on 2 July 2017 to speak out for Canada’s young indigenous people, likening it to the same kind of pain young people suffered in the now defunct residential schools.
On 22 December 2016, Downie was selected as The Canadian Press’ Canadian Newsmaker of the Year and was the first entertainer ever selected for the title. On 2 February 2017, Downie joined Blue Rodeo onstage at Massey Hall for a performance of Blue Rodeo’s song “Lost Together”.
Downie was, along with his Tragically Hip bandmates, appointed a Member of the Order of Canada on 19 June 2017 for “their contribution to Canadian music and for their support of various social and environmental causes”.
The Tragically Hip announced on their website on 24 May 2016 that Downie had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Doctors at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre confirmed the same day that it was a glioblastoma, which had responded favorably to radiation and chemotherapy treatment, but was not curable.
Downie toured with the band in summer 2016 to support Man Machine Poem, the band’s 14th studio album. The tour’s final concert was held at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario, on 20 August 2016 and was broadcast and streamed live by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on television, radio and internet. It was viewed by an estimated 11.7 million people.
In September 2016, Downie announced that he would be releasing a new solo album, Secret Path in October. The album was accompanied by a graphic novel on which he collaborated with Jeff Lemire. He also performed a few live shows to support the album, with supporting musicians Kevin Drew, Charles Spearin, Dave Hamelin, Kevin Hearn and Josh Finlayson. In September 2017, Downie announced a new solo double-album titled Introduce Yerself, which is slated for post-humous release on 27 October 2017.
Gord Downie died of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, on 17 October 2017 at the age of 53. The surviving members of The Tragically Hip made the news of his death public the next morning, by sharing an official statement from his family on their website:
“ Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by.”
Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.
Upon getting the news, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a tribute statement on his official website. Later in the day, he held a press conference at Parliament Hill at which he remembered Downie as “Our buddy Gord, who 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.” Canadian MP Tony Clement called upon the government to consider holding a state funeral for Downie, stating “I think he matters that much to Canadians.”
Downie’s death was widely mourned throughout Canada. Several prominent Canadians, including actor Ryan Reynolds, comedian Seth Rogen, Toronto mayor John Tory, singer k.d. lang and the rock group Rush, remembered Downie on Twitter. Additionally, several National Hockey League teams and players, as well as the league itself, paid tribute to Downie through social media, owing to the high popularity of the Tragically Hip’s music among Canadian professional hockey players. The Toronto Maple Leafs honored Downie with a moment of silence before their game on 18 October, during which the retired-jersey banner for Bill Barilko – whom Downie had written about in the Tragically Hip song “Fifty Mission Cap” – was lowered from the rafters of the Air Canada Centre.
Residents of the Ontario village of Bobcaygeon, which Downie had written about in the song of the same name, held a candlelight vigil for him the night after his death.