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What Indigenous Artists and Thinkers Are Saying About Gord Downie’s Message to Canada

"I hope our politicians can have the integrity of our rock stars."

by Sarah Berman
Aug 21 2016, 3:39pm

Gord Downie and Justin Trudeau photo via Twitter

With the help of a livestream from the Kingston theatre where the Tragically Hip played their final show last night, Gord Downie managed to break just about every heart in Canada, not only with a massive 30-song, three-encore set, but with a message about how Canada must address its fraught relationship with First Nations.

Just before launching into the band's buzzing new song "Machine," Downie name dropped the prime minister, who was in the audience, with some generous words: "We're in good hands, folks, real good hands," he said. "Prime Minister Trudeau's got me, his work with First Nations. He's got everybody. He's going to take us where we need to go."

Later in the set, Downie mentioned the struggles faced by Indigenous people in the far north. "He cares about the people way up north, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what's going on up there," he said. "And what's going on up there ain't good. It's not cool and everybody knows it. It may be worse than it's ever been ... [but] we're going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.''

On Twitter, Indigenous leaders, artists and thinkers shared thanks for lending visibility, but also questioned Trudeau's ability to deliver. Observers said Downie could have used the platform to raise awareness about cancer, but choose something important to the country's future.

Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe columnist and film programmer in Toronto, tweeted that he hoped the prime minister would follow through on Downie's message:

Others raised specific projects and issues, including Site C, a controversial hydroelectric dam in British Columbia, and the compounding crises faced by the northern community Attawapiskat.

Ryan McMahon, Anishinaabe comic based in Winnipeg, said he was moved in the moment, but said Trudeau's stance on Site C isn't something worthy of praise. "I hope Gord Downie lives long enough to write a song about Trudeau's decision not to honour Treaty 8 by greenlighting the Site C dam. (In the tune of "Blow At High Dough," 'There used to be salmon here, just down the river, haven't seen a sockeye, since 2013...')."

Caleb Behn, a Dene lawyer and anti-fracking activist based in BC shared the above Site C sentiment with his followers, adding: "reconciliation isn't for cowards and First Nations are waiting for Justin Trudeau to do courageous things in achieving meaningful reconciliation with us."

Others simply expressed appreciation for the final show. "The Tragically Hip are emblematic of my upbringing, relationship to my father, and all the things that I love about Canada," tweeted Khelsilem, a language revitalization and decolonization advocate from the Squamish Nation. "Indigenous 'sovereigntists' aren't supposed to admit the things they love about Canada, but there are a few things for me."

For McMahon, it'll take more than Downie's powerful words to bring Indigenous issues to the fore. "We need one million Gord Downies to hold not just the governments feet to the fire but all Canadians' feet to the fire when it comes to real systemic change in Canada."

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