Gord Downie performs at WE Day in Toronto on Wednesday, October 19, 2016. Downie has been named The Canadian Press newsmaker of the year for 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Gord Downie chosen as back-to-back Newsmaker of the year

Gord Downie was chosen as the Canadian Press Newsmaker for second consecutive year

Gord Downie only appeared in public a handful of times in 2017, but his calls for a more inclusive Canada resonated even in his absence.

Whether it was the poignant lyrics flowing through his recent albums or the heartfelt words he delivered in public, the Tragically Hip singer used every opportunity in his final months to speak out in support of Indigenous people in Canada.

Even after he died of brain cancer in October at age 53, Downie’s push for reconciliation continued to reverberate across the country.

His hope for a better Canada is one of the reasons editors and broadcasters say they selected him as Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year for the second straight time.

Downie collected 47 votes (53 per cent) in the annual Canadian Press survey of newsrooms across the country. The musician remains the only entertainer to receive the title in its 71-year history.

He’s also now among a select group of Canadians to be voted top newsmaker more than once. Others include former prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and activist athletes Terry Fox and Rick Hansen.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was second in this year’s poll with 11 votes (13 per cent), while new NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh finished third with 10 votes (11 per cent).

“Most Canadians don’t really care about politicians — but Gord Downie seems to have touched so many hearts,” wrote Christina Spencer, editor of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial pages.

“Rarely have we mixed our tears of sadness and gratitude as we did for Gord Downie,” added Danny Kingsbury, national rock format director at Rogers Radio in Ottawa.

“His music and legacy and work with Indigenous communities will live on.”

Even though Canadians knew it was coming, news that Downie had succumb to an incurable form of brain cancer on Oct. 17 left many stunned.

It almost seemed at times like he could do the impossible — somehow defy science to overcome his terminal diagnosis.

He surprised doctors and fans alike with his boundless determination during the 2016 Hip tour. At the rousing last concert in Kingston, Ont., Downie offered hints of his next vision. Speaking to the audience, he expressed the urgency of drawing more attention to the inequities faced by Indigenous people. He called on the prime minister to lead by example.

Downie’s ”Secret Path” multimedia project, which was completed before his cancer diagnosis, became the guidebook in his last year as he delicately recounted the tragic final hours of Chanie Wenjack.

For many Canadians, it was the first time hearing the story of the 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died of starvation and exposure after escaping a residential school in 1966.

“His spirit touched Chanie Wenjack’s spirit,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“Even though they never physically met each other, I think in a spiritual way they knew and really bonded together.”

Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, worked closely with the Downie family over the past year and a half. He said it was impossible to predict how “Secret Path” would affect the wider conversation.

“None of us really could envision the impact,” he said. “To see it spread across the country was something … pretty meaningful.”

Fiddler credits Downie for shining a spotlight on some Indigenous issues, which he said led to progress in certain areas.

“We have more and more communities coming off the boiled water advisory list next month in Slave Falls,” he offered as one example.

“I would like to believe that Gord had a hand in those things.”

Exploring the injustices inflicted upon Indigenous people in Canadian history led the singer on a personal journey of reflection, said his brother Mike Downie.

“Gord said several times that the only thing that mattered to him was getting Canadians to become aware of Indigenous lives, start to right the wrongs and move in the direction of reconciliation,” he said.

“It was what he wanted to get done before his time was up.”

As the year stretched on, the reality of Downie’s mortality was harder to ignore. His appearances became increasingly rare.

He surprised Blue Rodeo concertgoers in February by walking on stage to sing “Lost Together” alongside Jim Cuddy and other close friends. The emotional moment would be Downie’s final public stage performance.

In June, he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his work in raising awareness of Indigenous issues.

On Canada Day weekend, Downie stood on a stage at Parliament Hill and encouraged a young crowd of We Day participants to ask questions about the history of residential schools. He emphasized that Indigenous children in some parts of Canada continue to travel great distances each day for school, likening it to “the pain, the torture and the death” in residential schools.

His comments stood to elevate concerns Indigenous leaders have expressed over the lack of education and health resources for young people in remote communities.

“It is still happening even though the residential school has gone away,” the ailing performer said.

“It’s time to listen to the stories of the Indigenous. To hear stories about now.”

He left the audience with an optimistic final thought as he looked to the next 150 years for the country.

“Yours is the first generation in the new and real Canada. I love you,” he said to applause.

“You and yours, the Indigenous, together will make this a true country now, one true to your word. The new 150 years, not the old one. The new one. Exciting and true.”

A few months later, he was gone.

On the streets of Kingston that sombre October day, the hometown boy’s voice was everywhere. Restaurants cranked up playlists of only Hip songs, while some fans blared their car stereos to drown out the pain of the loss.

Many talked about how Downie offered solace amid their family’s own cancer fights. Others reflected on how their perspectives of Canadian history were reshaped by his ardent support of Indigenous rights.

Those sentiments stretched across the country as local musicians covered Hip favourites and viewers watched a broadcast of “Long Time Running,” a documentary recounting the band’s final tour.

More Downie tributes are still in the works. A public memorial is being considered by the Hip’s members and their management, though no official date has been set.

And in Ontario, an opposition NDP member recently introduced a bill to create a poet laureate program in the province and name the legislation after Downie.

Carrying Downie’s message into the future now lies with his friends and the millions of Canadians he called on to make a difference.

The late singer established the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to serve as a catalyst in the movement towards reconciliation. Next year, the organization plans to escalate its approval of small grants that would unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and promote education in schools.

It’s a project Downie considered essential for the longer term. He’d witnessed slivers of progress while he was still alive, his brother Mike said, and he considered each of them a reason for hope.

“He could see that he had some impact,” Mike Downie said.

“I know Gord felt really good that he had maybe managed to move the needle a little bit.”

—-

David Friend, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Striking Western Forest Products workers could lose benefits in September

Union, forest company at odds over Vancouver Island benefit payments as strike enters third month

Chemainus Health Care Auxiliary outlines its mandate at North Cowichan council meeting

President Beaubier states her case for group’s tireless efforts

Current MP opens Cowichan-Malahat-Langford campaign office

MacGregor vowing to return to Ottawa for another four years

Environment and economy key issues for Liberal’s Cowichan-Malahat-Langford candidate

Herbert campaign focuses on party’s investments in both areas

Roundabout taxing for public purse strings

The need for four a short distance apart seems unfathomable

B.C. sockeye returns drop as official calls 2019 ‘extremely challenging’

Federal government says officials are seeing the same thing off Alaska and Washington state

Expanded support to help B.C. youth from care attend university still falling short

Inadequate support, limited awareness and eligibility restrictions some of the existing challenges

Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

Statistics Canada says new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population in 2016

Cross-examination begins for B.C. dad accused of killing young daughters

Andrew Berry is charged in the deaths of six-year-old Chloe and four-year-old Aubrey in 2017

Dog attacked by river otters, Penticton owner says

Marie Fletcher says her dog was pulled underwater by four river otters in the Penticton Channel

BC SPCA overwhelmed with cats, kittens needing homes

Large number of cruelty investigations, plus normal ‘kitten season’ to blame

Wife charged in husband’s death in Sechelt

Karin Fischer has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of her husband, Max

B.C. Hydro applies for rare cut in electricity rates next year

Province wrote off $1.1 billion debt to help reverse rate increase

Most Read