Gord Downie, fighting cancer, to walk audience down ‘Secret Path’ of indigenous pain

Downie set to return to stage with 'Secret Path'



OTTAWA — Gord Downie’s powerful performance in the last concert of the Tragically Hip’s summer tour is now seared into the Canadian collective consciousness.

The pained anguish at the moment of the dropped microphone during “Grace, Too” and the unexpected political and social call to arms to help indigenous Canadians were a prelude to a final elegant song that told us there was “no dress rehearsal, this is our life.”

That nationally broadcast concert of the Tragically Hip in Kingston, Ont., in August just may have been a dress rehearsal of sorts.

Like the tragic 12-year-old muse of Downie’s latest solo project — a multimedia fusing of music, film and social activism â€” the Hip frontman is still grinding forward, one step at a time, in an appeal to awaken something he sees embedded in a guilty Canadian conscience, something as firmly rooted as the terminal brain cancer he continues to fight.

Downie’s fight resumed Tuesday night at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa where he received a standing ovation before the first note of the show.

The musician took to the stage for the multimedia performance of his new album, “Secret Path,” which tells the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont., 50 years ago this weekend.

Downie’s music and lyrics were accompanied by a graphic novel, as well as an animated film that was screened as a visual component of Tuesday’s one-hour performance.

Downie, backed by a five-piece band, played the new album start to finish as the stark blue-tinged, black and white film depicted a scared, shivering, rain-soaked boy walking to his death.

Dressed in jeans and a buttoned up denim jacket, adorned with a poppy, Downie walked in place at times, in unison with the figure on the large screen above.

The singer sang and didn’t speak, his voice clear and piercing, and the rapt auditorium absorbed it all in silence, offering a smattering of applause. It was as if they felt that showing too much enthusiasm might somehow offend the raw story unfolding on stage.

Forty-seven intense minutes after it started, they stood again cheered some more.

Downie’s older brother, Mike, had introduced the singer to Wenjack’s story after hearing a radio documentary several years ago. But then Downie was diagnosed late last year with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. He later went on tour with the Hip.

But he had unfinished business and has been rehearsing for weeks for two shows, the first one Tuesday night in Ottawa and the second in Toronto on Friday. That post-tour work has been a form of physical, emotional and mental therapy, his brother said in a pre-show interview.

“Gord’s making his life count,” said Mike Downie.

“This is his most important work, his most powerful work, and I think it’s going to live forever. I think in many ways, Chanie’s story is going to live forever as well. And I guess they’ll be together forever.”

Hundreds of residential school survivors and indigenous leaders were invited to Tuesday’s performance.

“Gord is walking a path towards his death as well,” said Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

Moran said many people who were working on Canada’s recently completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission were secretly hoping that a popular figure such as Downie would emerge to take up their cause and prevent the final report from being consigned to a dusty shelf.

“What I hope happens is that we hold him up, and the country holds him up and gives him as much strength and cheers him on as much as we can collectively so he can continue this critically important work.”

Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie Wenjack’s older sister, recalled how Downie and his brothers travelled to their remote northern Ontario community of Ogoki Post last month to present the completed “Secret Path.” They played the opening track, “The Stranger,” on a laptop computer, and they leafed through the stark drawings in the accompanying graphic novel.

“He captured everything that was there â€” the isolation in the forest, the fear he must have had being alone,” Achneepineskum said Tuesday.

Now, she said, there is an unbreakable bond between her family and the Downies.

“It’s almost like another brother â€” that sort of connection.”

Downie has also started a fund to raise money in Wenjack’s memory, which his brother Mike said will be the singer’s legacy.

“These things burn hot and bright and then they start to dim,” said Mike Downie. “But the fund â€” the idea is to keep that going.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Helping others, especially those struggling with mental health issues, keeps MOD Pizza owner Jim Hayden cooking. (RIck Stiebel/News Staff)
A 1900s writing box found in Greater Victoria contained ink, photos and a letter addressed to Clara McCaubry dated October 14, 1898. (Photo courtesy Suzanne Hervieux)
Mysterious 1900s writing box finds a home among Saanich Archives

Wooden chest owned by early Saanich resident Clara Isabelle McCaubry

(Black Press Media file photo)
Spooky online class cooks up funds for Greater Victoria Imagination Library

United Way Greater Victoria offers how-to for witch cookies, tasty coffin as fundraiser

Murray Rankin has announced he will seek the nomination for the Oak Bay Gordon Head riding in the 2021 provincial election (which could happen in the fall of 2020). The former Minister of Parliament for the Victoria riding from 2012 to 2019.
(MurrayRankin.com)
New Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Murray Rankin says he will use his federal connections

Rankin said being part of NDP majority government gives him a strong voice

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Most Read