Ahead by a century: remembering Gord Downie

A tribute to Kingston's frontman

Journal File Photo

Gord Downie, the charismatic, fiercely lyrical front man of The Tragically Hip, who influenced a generation of Canadian musicians, passed away on Tuesday night. 

“Gord knew this day was coming,” a note posted by his family on social media read. 

“[H]is response was to spend his time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.”

Downie’s cancer was announced on May 26, 2016 — the same day the band announced their final cross-country farewell tour. In a moment of national pride tinged with sadness as fans said goodbye, The Tragically Hip made their last stop in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016.

Roughly a third of Canadians watched as Downie thanked the thousands of adoring fans that gathered in Kingston for the final performance. When the band hugged and left Downie alone on stage, he was left with the undeniable evidence and importance of what he called “the life.” 

The Tragically Hip had returned home and left on their own terms — a rarity in rock music.

 A Vigil in Market Square

Almost a year after their final show, Kingstonians returned to Market Square for a candlelit vigil Wednesday night to remember Downie. They laid bouquets, wrote their favourite lyrics on a roll of paper spread across the sqaure as passing busses displayed “Gord, We’ll Miss You” on their destination signs.

Some attendees brought guitars and played impromptu covers of “Ahead by a Century” while members of the crowd joined in to sing. 

“It’s been a tough day for Kingston. But to see the outpouring of support and appreciation from the community has been pretty amazing,” Mayor Paterson told The Journal. “And the fact that the centre of this makeshift memorial was the stone we put in the square to commemorate the last concert The Tragically Hip played here in Kingston — I think it’s a special moment.”

Mayor Paterson added the night was “a chance for people to share memories, to celebrate his legacy, to honour him and to say thank you for everything he did for the country and our city.”

Stephanie Hawkley went to high school with the band and was happy to see the turnout, despite the difficult situation. 

“I feel lucky to be here and pay tribute,” she said.

However, the inevitability of the event weighed heavily in many of the crowds’ conversations.

Gillian Webber was among them. She moved to Kingston eight months ago after coming to see the livestream of the band’s last concert in Springer Square. She saw the intense connection between the people and their city, inspiring her move. 

Webber shared her thoughts on the band that brought her to Kingston.

“Because we had the year to prepare, in some ways we thought he would never go,” Webber said. “We kind of mourned him as a country but we still felt like we could get to keep him. We had so much time to come to grips with this that tonight can be a celebration.” 

“Canada got to say goodbye to Gord Downie.”

A Campus Band

Before The Tragically Hip was a Canadian band, it was a Kingston band. And even before that, they were campus band.

“Everywhere you go you seem to see the same bands,” said a young Gord Downie, to The Journal in 1985. After all, Queen’s campus could, “use an injection of something new and different.”

According to Downie, that meant “high energy dance music.”

The long-haired 20 year-olds that would later become national sensations started packing campus venues like Clark Hall Pub and Alfie’s (now the Underground), with spirited blues-rock numbers. 


But eventually things changed for Kingston’s favourite sons. In 1989, the band skipped playing Queen’s Homecoming for the first time since they started in 1985, but for good reason. That year, they released their first major-label, full-length album Up to Here to strong critical and commercial reception, winning a Juno for Most Promising Artist.

When they returned to Kingston in 1990, The Journal reviewed their concert and noted, “The image of the Hip as a campus band only exists as a legend to most current students, and some are even unaware of the Queen’s connection.” 

When the band received their honourary degrees from Queen’s in 2016, bass player Gord Sinclair remarked on the campus’ formative role in the Hip’s career. 

“This place shaped who and what we’ve become. We learned how to perform in front of students and locals alike in campus pubs and local dives. We saw early on how music has the power to move people and bring them together,” he said.

 Downie the Icon

Meanwhile, as the band left the dive bars and campus mainstays for a promising future, Downie was maturing as a lyricist. Always a capable front man, the singer began to grow as a poet.

His lyrics were filled with images of Canadian wilderness and small towns; hockey heroes and true stories; national history and childhood memories. 

They were just a part of a long list that explains why The Tragically Hip matters. Downie’s lyrics could fill a hockey arena or the syllabus of a Canadian literature class. He spoke to the range and complexity of the Canadian experience and it was noted.

As Downie profiled Canada, he became more than a musician. He took on more social causes, serving as a board member for Lake Ontario Water Keeper, supporting the environmental protection of the waterfront he grew up with.

However, Downie’s deepest social commitment was encapsulated in his final solo album, 2016’s The Secret Path.  Released with an accompanying graphic novel, the album told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who died while escaping a residential school in 1966. 

After receiving the Order of Canada for his leadership on Indigenous issues this past June, Downie elaborated in a speech delivered on Parliament Hill on July 2.

“Now we begin a new 150 years. We leave behind the first 150 years, the ones with one big problem — trying to wipe out our Indigenous peoples, to take their minds and hearts, to give them the choice [to] become white or get lost,” he said.

“It’s time to listen to the stories of the Indigenous [people], to hear stories about now. We are blessed as a young country to be able to look to the wisdom of a really, really old country.”

This was Downie’s final act. He was granted the rare opportunity to say goodbye and the country listened. It was a story that began and ended in Kingston, often returning there in between.

“I’d like to think the future is limitless. If we carved ourselves a niche, or put ourselves in a pocket, then I hope that pocket is expansive enough to move,” Downie told The Journal in 1990, when it was increasingly clear that the band was beyond a campus act. “The future is bright.”

— with files from Shivani Gonzalez


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