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‘People like Gord change the world’

Tuesday night we lost an important force that brought us together and made us better
The world – and Canada especially – lost a big part of ourselves when we lost Gord Downie. Photo by Tim Fitzgerald

“One day Gord Downie called,” begins the comment under a post made on The Tragically Hip’s official Facebook page this morning. The post was an announcement that began, “Last night Gord passed away with his beloved children and family close by.”

We all knew that announcement was coming eventually. He’d been fighting a very public battle with glioblastoma – an incurable form of brain cancer – since doctors discovered it after a seizure in December of 2015.

“It was about 25 years ago,” the comment continues. “I didn’t know who he was but he’d become aware of a campaign I’d started to support tree planting in Africa. He said ‘I have a band … and we are going on tour … how can I help out?’

“Fortunately I had an amazing volunteer who knew exactly who Gord Downie was. He travelled across the country with the band. Gord wore our T-shirt on stage. We sold shirts, and got the word out. Thanks to Gord and The Hip, that tour helped launch a program that planted more than 80 million trees.

“People like Gord change the world.”

It’s true.

Maybe that’s why I’m in so much pain today. I mean, people die all the time. Singers die all the time. But our planet didn’t just lose another singer.

As I wrote in a column last August about listening to CBC Radio’s live broadcast of The Hip’s final concert, the collective Canadian conscience has spent the last 30-plus years more in tune with itself and its history than it would have without Gord Downie being a part of it.

Thanks to Gord, we all squeezed a stick and we all pulled the trigger.

And we did it together. As one.

He and his band were a huge part of the soundtrack of two generations of Canadians’ lives. And they did so while both entertaining and educating us.

For example, on just one of the band’s 14 studio albums, 1992’s Fully Completely, Gord and the boys taught us not only about Canadian author Hugh MacLennon, but also delved into some of the unpleasantness that lies below the surface of the Canadian history we all like to think about. From the European encroachment and annexation of Indigenous lands to the kidnapping of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre LaPorte during the FLQ crisis of 1970 to the 23-year-long wrongful imprisonment of David Milgaard for the murder of 20-year-old nursing student Gail Miller in Saskatoon in 1969, we learned a lot over those 46 minutes and 45 seconds.

In 2004, the band released In Between Evolution, which largely explored Gord’s feelings about the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There were also some heavy narrative stories told in metaphor, such as “Fiddler’s Green,” where a mother says goodbye to her child born with a heart defect – which some feel was written in tribute to Gord’s own nephew.

Then there were combinations of those things – dark, real-life Canadian history and deep fictional narrative tale – such as in 1998’s “Bobcaygeon,” which is the story of the 1933 Christie Pits riot in Toronto as told by a fictional police officer created by Gord’s beautiful mind.

There’s a saying – there’s some dispute over who said it first, but it doesn’t really matter – that goes as follows: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

It’s a sentiment I think Gord would have expressed today. He probably would have said it with a metaphor and some obscure Canadian historical reference, though.

But however he would have said it, I just want him to know I’m trying.

And I’ll keep trying.

But as our Prime Minister said this morning, “We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”

I’m not in so much pain today because we lost another singer.

I’m in pain today because we lost an important force that brought us together and made us better.

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