We spoke to Indigenous artists and leaders about Downie's efforts to get Canadians to look at our colonial history.
When the Tragically Hip walked offstage at the end of their epic 30-song set in Kingston on August, legions of fans roared in approval. Though it had been months since Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer diagnosis had been revealed, and everyone assumed this would be the last performance he would ever give, 30 songs wasn't enough. They wanted more from the legendary poet/songwriter/frontman.
Downie had also spoken at length during the Kingston show, more than he had throughout the entire tour, addressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who was in attendance) directly: "[Trudeau] 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," Downie said between songs. "And what's going on up there ain't good," he continued. "It's maybe 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.''
These, and other threads are now being woven together in a completely unprecedented manner. Fans are getting more music from Downie with the release of Secret Path, which also sees the songwriter actively trying to quell all the overt flag-waving and nationalism that came with the Tragically Hip's summer tour.
With Secret Path, Downie is doing his part to better define the country he calls home. Secret Path is dedicated to Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who died while walking the railroad tracks after escaping from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in October 1966. The record was inspired by the story of Wenjack, and includes an 88-page graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire.
"Chanie haunts me," Downie said in a statement. (Downie was not available for an interview, and has only granted a handful of them since his diagnosis.) "His story is Canada's story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. "White" Canada knew—on somebody's purpose—nothing about this. We weren't taught it in school; it was hardly ever mentioned."
Whether or not Secret Path ends up being Downie's final record remains to be seen. What it is, in the present, is a bold statement from a songwriter who seems hell-bent on bringing to light one of the most pressing—yet still under discussed—issues in Canada: that of Indigenous rights and reconciliation. (Proceeds from Secret Path will be donated to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba.)
It would have been easy to walk away from the Tragically Hip's summer tour and think of Downie in a strictly non-threatening manner: as the singer who sung about hockey (but less often than you actually remember) and many spots on the map of Canada (which many never bothered to understand), but challenging fans has always been part of Downie's modus operandi. "Goodnight Attawapiskat" is one of the band's catchier songs on 2012's Now For Plan A, but beneath the chugging chords is a call to examine a Northern Ontario First Nation community undergoing a severe infrastructure and water crisis.
Secret Path continues in that vein, perhaps forcing many Tragically Hip fans into an uncomfortable realization: that their hero is using his position to deconstruct their idea of Canada, and perhaps, even the idea that he's a Canadian hero to begin with.
And more importantly, Downie could force a portion of his fans to confront an issue they have long overlooked.
"It awakens people," Tanya Tagaq told VICE of Downie's mission. Her own upcoming record Retribution was described in a press release as a "...howling protest that links lack of respect for women's rights to lack of respect for the planet, to lack of respect for Indigenous rights."
"It forces people into a corner. You have people from our perspective lending their voice and you have people from Gord's perspective lending his voice," she added when we spoke. "Racists and bigots are cornered. Society is forced to look and stop accepting stereotypes. Society is such a strange beast and sociological climate is what dictates how we go about our day to day lives."
An inherent risk with Secret Path is Downie acting as a white saviour: it takes a popular, non-Indigenous singer to get people to tune into the problem.
For Tagaq, that couldn't be further from the truth. "When you have someone with that fortitude and passion to speak out on our behalf it's this overwhelming feeling of gratefulness because he can touch different audiences that we can't," she said.
Isadore Day, the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief of Ontario, echoed this sentiment.
"I felt very grateful that someone of his stature would take to the cause and really lift up our people through his music and his stellar reputation," he told VICE.
"I don't think being non-Native or being white is the strength here," he adds. "In his own time of reflection about his own mortality has drawn a line of truth about what's important."
What has remained important in the lead-up to Secret Path is that the music speak for itself. Downie has done virtually no promo for the record (though an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge will air tonight), only travelling to Marten Falls First Nation (Ogoki Post) in early September to visit with the Wenjack family. It was not a publicized visit but Downie was honoured with a welcome ceremony. Because no interviews were granted during The Tragically Hip's summer tour for Downie's fans, it was a welcome sight to see photos of him at Ogoki Post.
At Ogoki Post, Downie began to do his part to shed light on the issue of residential schools. It's an issue that, according to Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, has not received proper attention.
"Not too many people have insight into what occurred in those institutions," Achneepineskum told VICE. "That's what [Downie] is trying to bring out: Was this a policy that was beneficial? Could we have done things better? And in his own way, try to bring reconciliation and begin the talk and dialogue about a topic that is sometimes missing. There's blurbs about it in the media but as is the case, all too often, these things are forgotten. This is very important to our First Nation and the families involved."
That Downie has been embraced by many First Nations chiefs and artists alike suggests that his legacy as this country's pop-poet chronicler won't include the easily digested notion of Canada that many celebrated this past summer.
"It's making things uncomfortable," says Ian Campeau of Canadian hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Red. "It's confronting what Canada was based on. You can't have a colonial state where you come in and colonize these people without thinking you are superior to these people."
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Campeau, a member of the Nipissing First Nation believes the Indian Act is a perfect example of white supremacy being held as a Canadian value today. Downie himself said at the Kingston Tragically Hip gig that it will take 100 years to figure out "...what the hell went on up there" but for now, the conversation can only grow broader into places it's likely never been had before.
"These are things we need to talk about," Campeau says. "Through discussing the institutional oppression and abuse that Chanie Wenjack went through, it's paramount that we start confronting these dark, shady pasts and start having these conversations."
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