Gord Downie made headlines around the world when he died this year. It was a story so sad that even the prime minister couldn’t hold back tears.
At the age of 53, Downie died in October after battling terminal cancer for nearly two years. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable brain cancer, in December 2015.
The news of his death sent ripples across Canada. While it was expected, it wasn’t easy for many to accept, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was teary-eyed while speaking to the media about the entertainer.
“We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it. We all knew it was coming but we hoped it wasn’t,” said Trudeau. “I thought I was going to make it through this, but I’m not. It hurts.”
The Tragically Hip frontman received 26 per cent of the vote in Yahoo Canada News’ year-end poll. Downie edged out federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (20 per cent) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (19 per cent) after more than a week of voting.
More than 1,500 people responded to the annual poll question. In 2016, Yahoo Canada News voters also selected Downie. The Canadian Press recently named Downie their Canadian newsmaker of the year for the second year in a row.
“Gord is a rare Canadian. He sang about this country, made a lot of people feel really good about being Canada,” the singer’s brother, Mike Downie, told The Canadian Press in December. “It made people feel uniquely Canadian.”
In the days after Downie’s death, vigils and tributes sprung up across the country, including in his hometown of Kingston, Ont. More than a thousand people came together in Toronto to sing the songs that made Downie famous across Canada. Canadians also travelled to pay their respects to the singer in the small Ontario town of Bobcaygeon, a place immortalized by Downie’s song lyrics.
His final album, Introduce Yerself, climbed to the top of the Canadian music charts. Other hits by the Tragically Hip also rose to prominence in the weeks that followed.
Downie’s life was full of high points in the months before his death.
He was appointed the Order of Canada in June. Months later, his bandmates were bestowed with the same distinction.
But it was his push toward reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations that solidified Downie as a champion of Canadian culture and identity.
“Gord said several times that the thing that mattered to him, the only thing that matter to him, was getting Canadians to become aware of Indigenous lives and to start to right the wrongs and I guess move in the direction of reconciliation,” Mike Downie told The Canadian Press.
“It was what he wanted to get down before his time was up.”
Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum told CBC News he was sad to hear about the loss of a “down-to-earth” man who helped bring First Nations issues into the spotlight.
“I think that he started it and it is up to us to continue, whoever can, continue this talk of reconciliation,” Achneepineskum said.
Nishawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler also spoke glowingly about Downie while speaking with CBC News.
“There is a lot to celebrate and I think all of us have a responsibility to carry on the legacy he leaves behind,” Fiddler said.