Feature Photo: Global News
I remember when the Tragically Hip announced that they would be doing a final tour across Canada after their lead singer; Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in the summer of 2016. I was in Seoul, South Korea and the news travelled fast within the Canadian expat community.
I think many Canadians, in Canada, and all around the world, were shocked by the news. Those who could, scrambled to get tickets to the final shows. The band was from my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, so when they arrived there for their final bow the nation came alive.
Over 90% of the country tuned in to watch Gord and the rest of the Tragically Hip scream into the microphone one last time. The streets outside the K-Rock Centre were full. People, including our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, came from all parts of the country to stand in Market Square to sing the final lyrics with the band. I tuned in from Guam, and so many of the Canadian expats in Seoul dropped everything they were doing to say goodbye from afar.
After Gord Downie’s death Justin Trudeau gave a national address, many wept, and the nation as a whole grieved. A candle light vigil will be held next Wednesday and there is talk about giving him a national holiday. Our international friends were curious and were asking questions about what made this guy so special and why we feel so connected to him and the band. There’s really no way to explain it. I think the best correlation would be that he was our Shakespeare, our Princess Diana, and our Elvis all combined into one.
It got me thinking about the uniqueness of this situation and why there will never be another like it.
Canada is a very young country, in comparison to other countries in the world. We are still finding out identity, much like a teenager in high school. Being a young country, the only things we really knew about ourselves for certain was that, we were not American, we were not British and we were not French. There is an innocence, an uncertainty, and a youthful hopefulness about us as a nation.
As a matter of fact, much like teenagers, part of our identity is largely shaped by music. The Tragically Hip arrived around on the scene in the 1980’s, when Canada was coming of age. We relished in the distinctly Canadian sound, the Canadian stories, and the commonality and patriotism that the band cultivated.
But, most importantly they were ours.
Most of the time when bands, or other artists reach a certain amount of fame they are whisked off to the United States, but the ‘Hip’ didn’t. They stayed with us. For 30 years they played for us, at Canada Day’s, hockey games, in our cars, and on the radio. They were approachable and accessible. Nearly everyone knew them, and in Kingston you could easily run into them on the street and have a lengthy conversation.
They played for our grandparents, our parents, us, and in many cases even our children. Their songs were about Canadian events and brought our history to life. Their songs were the ones our parents and grandparents blasted from their car speakers in their youth. For us they are memories of our childhood. They were the band that everyone knew.
I know being abroad, talking about The Tragically Hip was like speaking in code. Only Canadians understood the code, and it was like a brotherhood. As much as our international friends may appreciate the music if they hear it, they can’t understand it like a Canadian does. As Canadians, even if you didn’t listen to the music you could speak the language. And thankfully that is what Gord Downie wanted, for his music to bring people together.
While helping to channel our angst, and develop our identity as the hockey loving, Tim’s drinking and rock-loving nation, the ‘Hip’ bluntly pointed out our flaws and mistakes as nation.
All nations want to cultivate a pure identity but the Tragically Hip ensured that our imperfections were also voiced and brought to light. Gord’s poetic lyrics underscored the issue of homophobia, war, indigenous issues, rape, genocide, wrongful convictions, missing persons, and racism that are so often buried deep in the construct of Canadian culture. His lyrics made us acutely aware of whom we are by constantly challenging us to be better, but at the same time celebrate our successes.
Furthermore, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip’s last few years were dedicated to clearing a path for reconciliation between natives and non-natives. As one of Canada’s darkest parts of history, it still continues to haunt us in the present. His latest album was dedicated to creating awareness for aboriginal communities, and several funds were set up to improve the situation in the north. At his final concert, he called out to the Prime Minister and the rest of Canada as his dying wish that we would work toward reconciliation.
Gord and the Tragically Hip helped to establish a connection between Canadians; they cultivated a culture of music that was distinctly ours. They fought for the rights of all Canadians, pointed out our flaws, and encouraged us to do and be better. They were with us through the good, the bad and the ugly, and they entertained us for over 30 years.
The band helped establish an understanding of whom we are in a world that is constantly changing. They helped construct patriotism, and a national identity that is significantly different from our parent countries, France and England, and from our sibling, the United States. They also made us aware of our best qualities and we have been confronted with our worst.
Perhaps we not only mourn the loss of our beloved icon, and beloved band, but maybe we are also mourning the loss of ourselves. Gord and the band had an incredible way of guiding and unifying our nation through music. Perhaps the grief is part in parcel with the fact that we know these things about us, and we’re on our own now to fix them.
The uniqueness of Gord and the band, the political, social and global climate and the Canadian need for a national identity and cultural leader created the perfect opportunity for a band like the Tragically Hip. Canada needed them as much, if not more than they needed us. Now we are on our own and the nation is mourning.