Gord Downie, Justin Trudeau, and the Complicated Magic of National Mythmaking

Forget the Olympics, Canada's real cultural moment in 2016 happened on Saturday.
August 22, 2016, 2:17pm
​ Gord Downie at Saturday night's show. Photo via Live Nation

August 20th was a national holiday in Canada. Huddled together in a hundred thousand living rooms, bars, backyards, sheds, and stadiums, more than 11 million people tuned into the CBC for the final Tragically Hip show. We said goodbye to a national icon.

It was a beautiful concert. Poet and frontman Gord Downie delivered an astonishing performance—impressive enough on a regular day, devastatingly powerful for a man with terminal cancer. They played the hits and gems of a 30-year career and everyone's heart shattered into a million pieces as Gord sobbed his way through "Grace, Too" in one of their three encores.


The occasion was tremendously sad, but also genuinely sublime. Cancer is robbing the man far too young, but we should all be so blessed as to give our own eulogy to millions of adoring fans.

I love The Tragically Hip. Their music got me through a really rough patch in my life, alone and depressed on the other side of the country from everyone I knew and loved. Gord's voice has been a pretty constant companion throughout most of my adulthood. The Hip is an indispensable soundtrack for anyone thinking and writing about Canada for a living.

The moment a country's heart broke. Screenshot

So I tuned into CBC on Saturday night and I was caught up in the magic. It was the magic of great art and the hard beauty of a man gracefully handling a human tragedy.

It was also the magic of Canadian nationalism.

The Hip's final show was a celebration of Canada, of a certain idea of liberal English Canada, as much as it was a celebration of Gord and his music—although now, certainly, they are inseparable. The CBC's relentless coverage of the Olympics segued smoothly into its celebration of "the most Canadian band in the world."

That the public broadcaster aired the concert, unfiltered and uninterrupted, for three hours justified its existence. It also fed into a tidal swell of sentiment across all media platforms (traditional, digital, social) urging us to give a fuck about this concert, the same way we are subtly and regularly urged to "give a fuck about hockey" and Tim Hortons and Molson Canadian and liberal multiculturalism. The country was united for the band—"Canada is closed," as one meme making the rounds put it. A band who spent 30 years playing with the building blocks of national imagery—building it up, knocking it over, scattering it around—was now the centre of the biggest anglo-nationalist spectacle this side of the 1995 referendum. Canada's 150 next year will not even come close to generating this kind of attention or affection.


Read More: How I Grew Up and Learned to Love the Hip

The show was Peak Canada. The subtext to all this is that if you didn't give sufficient fucks about the Hip, you were a bad Canadian. (And according to my Twitter mentions, I am a bad Canadian for pointing this out.)

All of this culminated near the end of the night when Gord called out to Justin Trudeau and gave him a ringing endorsement as the right man for the job of righting Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples and the North. Anyone who has followed Downie's career knows that he really, passionately cares about addressing the ongoing injustices of colonialism and holding Canada to account. That he would use his final public appearance to tell the millions of people watching to care about people and issues that "we have been trained our entire lives to ignore" is touching.

It was beautiful. Here was Gord Downie, voice of a nation in his last days, calling across the arena, calling across the space and history of Canada to Justin Trudeau. It echoes the call from Flanders' Fields: "to you from failing hands we throw/the torch." In a Canadian cathedral this would be a gleaming stained-glass window, a sacred mythological moment. I was profoundly moved to see it.

But this is precisely where we need to stop for a second. What are we witnessing? Canada's most beloved musician called out to the prime minister on live television, in front of more than one-third of the country, and charged him to reconcile settlers with Indigenous peoples.


This is a big deal. The concert represents a powerful chance to publicly hold Trudeau to account for what his government does—or does not do—to address colonialism in Canada. But given how charged it is with symbolism and emotion, we need to tread carefully, because it could just as easily become something else: Trudeau's ascension into pure symbol, a living conduit for all our warm feelings about liberal nationalism, the moment he became the Chosen One anointed by Gord as saviour of Canada.

That the prime minister was singled out for reconciliation is an especially great example of the disconnect between Trudeau the idea and Justin the man. Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett have both enthused that Canada would fully embrace the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), but in July, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the Assembly of First Nations that "simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities." Within the first six days of taking office, the Liberal government also killed an appeal that would have sought to make the Catholic Church pay restitutions for its role in residential schooling. And by granting permits for the controversial Site C dam in British Columbia, the federal government has signalled that, in the last analysis, reconciliation will take place on the terms of the Canadian nation-state, not those of First Nations.

Whether Gord's endorsement holds Trudeau to account or serves to mythologize the man further—to take him further away from our democratic reach—depends largely on how much we focus on the prime minister's government over his carefully curated image. (Such as this photo, with its 200K plus likes.)

Gord and Trudeau before the show Saturday. Photo via Facebook/Justin Trudeau

In 2012, Gord Downie told CBC that "I love this country. I love my idea of this country." This is the magic of nationalism—to wrap you up in a warm, glowing blanket. It makes you love an idea. It's a well of energy that The Tragically Hip challenged, diverted, played with, and ultimately channeled so expertly over the span of their career. And while it's not the only factor in why Saturday night felt so transcendent, it is a leading one. It's not bad or wrong to feel that Canadian glow so intensely, or to enjoy it. I felt it and reveled in it as much as anyone else. But I think we should acknowledge that it comes with baggage.

Read More: What Indigenous Thinkers Are Saying About Gord's Message

I feel about Canada the way Gord does. I think anyone who listened to his music and watched his last performance feels that way. The idea of Canada—the vision of a democratic, decolonial, egalitarian and truly federal community stretching across the rugged Northern wilderness—is one of great and profound beauty. Tapping into it as thoughtfully as they did is what made The Tragically Hip such an incredible band. But there is always a danger in losing sight of the real Canada for the idea of it we are being sold; doubly so when politicians become involved. It's easy to trip and fall in the dark if you're blinded by the stars.

As always, the last word belongs to the poet himself: "Isn't it amazing what you can accomplish / when you don't let the nation get in your way?"

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.