'His legend lives on': Ontario to get poet laureate in memory of Gord Downie

He was the frontman who, for many, gave Canadiana a sound, moving generations of music lovers with his unmistakable rock-poet style. Now, Ontario will enshrine Gord Downie's name into law with the province's first poet laureate position.

The Poet Laureate of Ontario Act in memory of Downie, the beloved Tragically Hip lead singer and lyricist, passed Thursday during the final sitting day of the legislative session for the year. 

The private member's bill by Percy Hatfield, NDP MPP for Windsor-Tecumseh, was first introduced in 2017, two months after Downie died at age 53 of an incurable form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.

The job: to promote the arts and literacy in Ontario, raise the profile of poets in the province, and act as an ambassador for Ontario poetry and literature. 

"His legend lives on, if you will," Hatfield told CBC News.

He was many things to many people, but at the heart of it he was a poet. - Patrick Downie

"I just think there's no more fitting tribute that we could pay to Gord Downie other than to name the poet laureate position in his memory. I mean, he read poetry, poets read him and followed him." 

Downie delivered much of his poetry through music, but also published in book form with Coke Machine Glow coming out in 2001. His music spanned themes of Canadian history, nature, the justice system, life and death.

In later years, he was especially vocal about the struggles of Indigenous Peoples, declaring: "Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are." 

Speaking to CBC News Thursday, Patrick Downie called it "a great honour" to see such a position being considered in his brother's name.

"It's very special. Gord was a real, true artist and writer and he really put his life into it," he said, adding that anything that continues his legacy and helps propel the artistry of others is a positive thing.

"He was many things to many people, but at the heart of it he was a poet and his poetry does what poetry does: it makes people think," Downie said. 

'Open books, open minds, open hearts'

"If you read the New York Times, there's an editorial in there that said, 'The place of honour that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada's national imagination has no parallel in the United States. Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you're getting close,'" Hatfield said.

Canada already has a poet laureate, as do many other Ontario cities, including Windsor, Barrie, London, Mississauga, Ottawa and Toronto, Hatfield points out. Installing someone in the role at the Ontario Legislature will help raise the profile of the province's $27-billion arts sector, which employs some 30,000 people, even higher. 

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The role is particularly important for some of Ontario's more remote communities, Hatfield told CBC News. 

"If you think of going to rural or northern communities, they don't have the ballet or the museums or the opera or symphonies or blockbuster art events, but if a poet laureate comes to visit, that's big news. And I think that would stimulate a lot of interest." 

In his home community of Windsor, the poet-laureate can draw a standing-room only turnout, said Hatfield. 

"Gord Downie, if you're familiar with him, on his blue jean jacket there's a yellow button that says, 'Open books, open minds, open hearts,'" said Hatfield.

"And I think that's what a poet laureate would do."