Ontario poet laureate role created in honour of Hip frontman Gord Downie

TORONTO — Ontario has created a new poet laureate position for the province and named it after the late Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie.

The bill — dubbed the Poet Laureate of Ontario Act In Memory of Gord Downie — was introduced by Windsor-Tecumseh NDP legislator Percy Hatfield and passed by the legislature on Thursday.

It establishes a provincial poet laureate to promote art and literacy.

Hatfield said now Ontario will join the federal government and some other provinces that have poet laureates.

Downie, who was the frontman of the rock band from Kingston, Ont., died on Oct. 17, 2017, after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Members of Downie's family, including his brothers Mike and Patrick, watched the passage of the bill. The pair gave the thumbs up as politicians from all parties approved the legislation.

Patrick Downie said it was moving for the family to witness the many tributes to their brother.

"It was really touching to hear such a heartfelt outpouring of love and appreciation for Gord, the man, and his artistic contribution," he said.

Mike Downie said the poet laureate will help bring the arts to smaller communities and that's something his brother would have supported.

"It's just a great acknowledgment of some of the things Gord did," he said. "To create this position, and put his name behind it, I think he would have loved it."

While Downie is best known for his time with the Tragically Hip, he published a book of poetry in 2001 called Coke Machine Glow.

He also helped create the multi-platform "Secret Path" project. It tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwe boy who died while trying to escape an Ontario residential school in 1966. The initiative aimed to raise awareness about Canada's history of residential schools through music, dance and art.

Hatfield has been working since 2017 to introduce the role as a tribute to Downie. He said the government signalled recently it would support his private member's bill.

"I just thought it was time for Ontario to have a poet laureate and name it in Gord Downie's honour," he said. "It's fitting because of his poetry."

Hatfield said the bill was a non-partisan attempt to promote poetry and literacy.

"This is so important to small town Ontario, rural Ontario," he said. "They don't have the ballet or symphony. They don't have a lot of art galleries. But if a poet laureate comes to town that's big news. It gets people talking about arts and culture."

Members of the legislature from across the political spectrum paid tribute to Downie, with many reading Tragically Hip lyrics that had moved them. They praised his contribution to the arts.

Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod said the poet laureate will raise the profile of poetry in Ontario and naming it after Downie is a fitting tribute to his legacy as an artist.

"Ingrained in the lyrics of every Tragically Hip song was meaning, poetry for certain," she said. "Listening to the lyrics you learned so much about our country and heritage."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2019.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press