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The politically hip Gord Downie

I went to see the Tragically Hip play in Ottawa last night. It was a memorable concert and additionally moving given the band’s singer and lyricist Gord Downie is courageously facing brain cancer.

Below is a brief summary about his politics (which includes water protection, health care, pipeline opposition, Indigenous solidarity, prisoner rights, and more).

Musician and activist Sarah Harmer has commented: “I really admire [the Tragically Hip’s] character as citizens. They’ve done a lot of generous fundraising and they get the word out for various Kingston community initiatives for kids camps or health care stuff. They don’t wait to see what someone else will do. They’re really great leaders on that front. They came to the [protest against Enbridge’s] Line 9 show I put on a few years ago. Gord does so much [Lake Ontario] Waterkeeper stuff. They were involved in [protesting clearcuts at] Clayoquot Sound [in the early ’90s]. It’s hard sometimes to use the capital you have as a beloved rock band and put it to various causes, especially when they’re a bit more controversial, like energy issues.”

At the “Rock the Line” concert in October 2013, Downie described the 300,000 barrel per day Line 9 tar sands pipeline as a “pollution delivery system”. It’s not surprising then that Downie was also one of the “initiating signatories” of the Leap Manifesto.

Writer Chris Koentges has noted: “Hectored by a CBC host in an interview in 2009, [Downie] said: ‘I would want no part of propagating or galvanizing or burnishing some of the stupid mythology in this country. That we’re this clean pristine place. That we’ve got it all figured out. That we know what’s best for the world.'”

Downie has visited Attawapiskat First Nation a number of times. Author Joseph Boyden writes: “As my dear friend Gord Downie said when he and the rest of the Tragically Hip came to James Bay to perform their first high school gym show in 25 years, our nation is only as good as how we treat our most vulnerable, as how we respond to those most in pain.”

Downie has also stated: “I stand in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and all Canadians who find themselves with no voice in our present version of democracy, who are trying to come up with the entry fee that gets them a seat at the table where their pollution future is being discussed.”

Waubgeshig Rice (a CBC Ottawa reporter from Wasauksing First Nation) tweeted Downie’s comment last night about being in the “nation’s capital” for this concert. Downie told the audience, “First Nations…that’s Canada’s capital”.

Explaining how he became engaged in environmental issues, Downie has said: “I grew up on the lake and spent most of that time outdoors. As a musician, I travel widely around the country and talk to a lot of people, from all walks of life. That experience, combined with my rock and roll roots gives me something of an affinity for the underdog. In many ways, the environment is also the underdog — so, it’s an easy fit.”

Andrea Warner notes Downie’s feminism. She writes: “For the most part, Downie’s lyrics afford women agency. That’s so important and seemingly simple: women get to be people, not just a prop of male fantasy or wish fulfilment. …One of the Hip’s unreleased songs is a beloved bootleg called ‘Montreal’. …It’s about the Montreal Massacre in 1989, when a misogynistic killer who hated feminists, walked into Ecole Polytechnique and murdered 14 women, shooting and injuring 13 others.”

Last night Downie sang “Wheat Kings”. That song is about David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of murder as a 17 year old in Saskatoon and imprisoned for 23 years before DNA evidence conclusively proved his innocence. Downie has spoken against capital punishment when introducing this song.

The CBC will broadcast and stream the Tragically Hip’s concert tomorrow (Saturday) starting at 8:30 pm ET. For information on how to tune in, please click here. The CBC reports there will also be nearly 200 community viewing parties across the country, more on that here. For more on the Tragically Hip, you can check out their website here.


Preliminary audience figures tell us that about 11.7 million people watched the concert on Saturday night. During the concert, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watching from the audience, Downie said, “[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. But what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, so it’s not on the improve. [But] we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.”

Numerous Indigenous leaders have indicated their support for Downie’s comments.

Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of Northern Manitoba’s MKO First Nations, says, “The words were very simple but the gesture was huge. I hope they don’t fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. We need to use his words as a call to action, to respect each other. I hope it placed even more pressure on the Prime Minister to make good on the promises and the kind words that he has said about indigenous people, and about that being the most important relationship to repair. …[Downie] needs to get a resounding message from indigenous people that we appreciate him standing with [us].”

Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett has commented, “I felt that obviously it’s hugely heartening that one of the most recognized and revered Canadians believes in the prime minister and believes that we’re serious about this project. But it’s also daunting, to say that we need to produce on this.”