By Lee Waters
In what may have been the Tragically Hip’s final performance on Saturday in Kingston, Ontario, Gord Downie spoke passionately of struggles in Canadian native communities, specifically Attawapiskat.
Downie, who revealed earlier this year that he has terminal brain cancer, used the podium in an emotional and televised concert to bring awareness to First Nations youth as well as endorse Prime Minister Trudeau, who was in the audience. “You know, Prime Minister Trudeau’s got me; his work with First Nations. He’s got everybody. He’s going to take us where we need to go.” He told the crowd and estimated 11 million watching. “He cares about the people way up north, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore — trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.” Downie continued, specifically pointing out the recent issues in Attawapiskat, with an air of encouragement, “It’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there, but it isn’t cool and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad, but we’re going to figure it out, you’re going to figure it out.”
That statement struck a chord with First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh, who said it’s clear based on the Hip’s song “Goodnight Attawapiskat” that “Gord has always had a special place in his heart” for the community, he told CBC.
“It’s a beautiful song,” Shisheesh said. He thanked Downie for the tribute and his words on stage in a video posted online Monday. “Our young people have suffered so much, a lot of them tried to commit suicide,” Shisheesh told CBC, referring to the several states of emergency that have been issued in Attawapiskat related to overcrowding and poor housing, as well as a suicide crisis that overtook the Ontario community in April.
Shisheesh suggested having a formal ceremony in Ottawa, holding a powwow, making Downie an honorary chief or hosting a healing ceremony would all be great gestures of gratitude. He says his dream would be to have Downie visit Attawapiskat and honour him right there in the community, he told CBC, “Downie’s presence would also help boost morale on the First Nation — especially with younger people.”
“We could do this in Attawapiskat because he wrote this song for our community. It is fitting for us, our wishes to organize the honorary ceremony,” Shisheesh said, adding he plans to reach out to other northern First Nation chiefs in Ontario and Manitoba in the coming days to see what they think of the idea.
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents most of northern Manitoba’s First Nations was also moved by Downie’s message. She suggested naming a lake or a park after the musician but wanted to be respectful and wait to hear his wishes. In a video posted on Facebook, North Wilson sent a message to Downie, first in Cree and then translated in English:
“I want to thank you for your love and care and concern for us. We love you, too. God bless you.
Downie and the Tragically Hip are known for their activism. Downie has served on the board of environmental group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He’s also performed concerts near James Bay to raise awareness of the many issues facing those First Nations communities.
Watched by fans in living rooms, bars, and public squares across the nation, the concert was one to remember. The band’s hits have provided a soundtrack to many Canadians’ lives through the last three decades. In a brief interview with the CBC, Trudeau reminisced about how he used to ‘enjoy the band’s music during his high school and university years,’ a heartfelt sentiment shared by many.