Gord Downie wins readers' pick for Canadian newsmaker of the year

Gord Downie performs at WE Day in Toronto on Oct. 19, 2016. Photo from The Canadian Press.

That night in Kingston, Ont., really seemed to hit home for Canadians in 2016.

Cancer-stricken Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie made such an impact this year that he was chosen by Yahoo Canada News readers as their top pick for Canadian newsmaker of the year, receiving the most individual votes.

Darby Allen, the fire chief for fire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alta., 16-year-old Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were also in the mix for the distinction.

The 52-year-old singer, who revealed his diagnosis with incurable brain cancer in May, was named the Canadian Press newsmaker of the year on Dec. 22, becoming the first entertainer to be selected for the honour.

Downie and his band embarked on a tour across Canada this summer with stops in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa. The crowds were loud and the atmosphere was described as emotional as Canadians came together to enjoy the music they grew up listening to.

But one night stood out from the rest.

It was Aug. 20 and the Rio Olympic Games were in their final days. CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, owned the exclusive national rights to the world’s most popular sporting event, but they decided to pass up coverage for a few hours to focus on an event considered to be more important.

That night, Canadians from all over the world tuned in to watch Downie lead the Hip for one last hurrah. The show was a smash hit, reaching 11.7 million people, according to preliminary audience figures provided to the CBC. An average of 4 million people watched the TV broadcast, which represents a substantial number in a country with a population of 36 million people.

The national celebration would stand as an emotional farewell to Downie, but it wasn’t the end.

Two months after the band’s final show, Downie revealed in a CBC interview that he was struggling with memory loss in his battle with the aggressive cancer known as glioblastoma, and had to write names on his hands so he wouldn’t forget.

“I don’t want to die, because my son is 10, my youngest son, Clemens. And that really scares me, obviously,” he told the CBC, adding “I am resigned to the direction this is heading.”

In October, the Ontario-born musician unveiled a solo album and graphic novel called Secret Path. The album and novel tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old First Nations boy who died while running away from a residential school.

Downie was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations with an emotional ceremony earlier this month for his work bringing attention to aboriginal issues in Canada. The musician was presented with an eagle feather and was given a Lakota spirit name, Wicapi Omani, which translates to “man who walks among the stars.”

“It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school,” Downie said at the ceremony. “To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one.”

For all he said and did in 2016, Gord Downie earned enough admiration to be selected by readers as the top Canadian newsmaker.