Gord Downie – Canada’s Storyteller

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Gord Downie’s love for Canada, “He loved every hidden corner, every story”.

We as Canadians struggle to find our identity.  We often view our own history as mundane. Our stability as a country is almost boring, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We have a lot to be proud of whether we see it or not. We pride ourselves on our free healthcare, diversity, and our outstanding citizens.

The most recent Canadian hero to pass was Gord Downie, who sang lead in The Tragically Hip. After being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015, it had been a tumultuous two years for The Hip. They did their final tour, and we said goodbye to “our friend Gord”, which is how I would imagine every Canadian would describe him.

Everyone who listens to The Hip, knows the significance their music has to them.  For me, it was listening to Fully Completely, on the family drives to Kingston.  Recently it has meant listening to “Bobcaygeon“, on our annual trips to Steve’s family cottage.  Usually sitting on the dock staring up at the stars (cliché, I know).  However, those personal memories and perspectives, give no credit to the ability of Gord Downie to tell OUR stories. It is truly incredible how he captured “Canadiana”, and truly loved every corner of this country.

Here are some of the greatest Canadian stories told lyrically by Gord Downie:

Fifty-Mission Cap

“…Bill Barilko disappeared that summer,
he was on a fishing trip.
The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the cup.
They didn’t win another until 1962,
the year he was discovered.
I stole this from a hockey card,
I keep tucked up under…”

The story of Bill Barilko was a tragedy to say the least.  It was 1951, and Barilko had just scored the game winning goal of the Stanley Cup Finals. That summer his plane mysteriously disappeared in northern Ontario.  It was believed that the Leafs were cursed by this event, as they went on to have 11 consecutive losing seasons.  Then in 1962, the Leafs had won the cup, and 7 weeks later his remains were discovered approximately 100km north of Cochrane, Ontario.

Bobcaygeon

“…That night in Toronto, with it’s checkerboard floors
Riding on horseback, keeping order restored
Til the men they couldn’t hang
Stepped to the mic and sang
And their voices rang with that Aryan twang.”

“…In the middle of that riot, couldn’t get you off my mind”  

Many know of the great cottage town that this song derives its name from.  However, not many know of the disturbing details in this song.  Like most of Gord’s lyrics there is often another side to the song that transcends the positive imagery.  In 1933, there were race riots in Toronto’s Christie Pitts Park.  A Toronto facist group called the “Swastika-Club”, instigated brawls with young Jewish men in the park.  The police were unable to stop the brawling until the next morning.

The Hip had deep ties to Toronto as evidence by this song, as they make reference to “checkerboard floors”, which can be seen in the Horseshoe Tavern.  They also reference a band who played at Lee’s Palace named “The Men They Couldn’t’ Hang”. The Hip played at both of these Toronto venues in their early days.

Wheat Kings

“…Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new
Besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”

“…Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, we always knew that he’d go free”

Wheat Kings is the story of the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard for the murder of Gail Miller.  Milgaard who was 17 at the time, took a road trip out to Saskatoon with a couple of friends. The same night they were in Saskatoon, Gail Miller was murdered in an alley. The local police were under heavy pressure to find and convict a suspect.  Due to his prior history of conviction and the inability for the community to believe a local could have committed this crime, Milgaard was sentenced to 23 years in prison.  Throughout his jail sentence, Milgaard had 20 opportunities for parole.  The condition was that he would have to confess to the crime, which he never did.  Then, in 1992 Milgaard was finally released after spending over 8,000 days in prison.

Three Pistols

“…He said, “Bring on the brand new renaissance
Cause I think I’m ready
I’ve been shaking all night long
But my hands are steady.”

This song makes reference to famous Canadian painter Tom Thomson, who was in the Group of Seven.  The Group of Seven was renowned for their ability to capture Canadian scenery.  This song tells a story of Canadian folk-lore.  Thomson would often stand outside in snowstorms in order to capture the natural beauty of the scenery.  In one instance, a friend recalled Thomson using a fire to warm his painting hand while the rest of his body shook in the cold.

Montreal

“…Because a coward won’t die alone”

The song “Montreal”, was written about the 1989 Montreal Massacre.  It took place at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, as a 25-year-old gunman committed one of the largest mass murders in Canadian history.  He killed 14 young women and 13 more were shot and injured.  The song was set to be released on the album Road Apples.  However, the song was never released.  In the year 2000 The Hip played “Montreal”, days after the 11 year anniversary of the massacre.  The show was in Montreal’s Bell Centre.

Locked in the Trunk of a Car

Everyday I’m dumping the body”

This song tells the bizarre story of the abduction and murder of Pierre Laporte by the FLQ in 1970.  The song is written from the killer’s point of view and includes instances of screaming “Let me out!” by Downie.  Laporte’s body was eventually found in the trunk of a car after a Montreal radio station had been tipped off about the location. This event would come to be known as the October Crisis. This act of terrorism was significant, as it led Pierre-Elliot Trudeau to enact the War Measures Act.  This act suspends civil liberties and has only been enacted a handful of times in Canadian history, usually in times of war.

Looking for a Place to Happen

“…Jacques Cartier, right this way,
I’ll put your coat up on the bed
Hey man you’ve got the real bum’s eye for clothes
And come on in, sit right down,
no you’re not the first to show
We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?”

One of the most Canadian songs ever, as Downie describes the discovery of Canada by Jacques Cartier.  It is also a clear satirical account of how welcoming the Indigenous populations in Canada were to the Europeans.  The Hip portray this as almost a “dinner party” that was thrown.  The comedic aspect of this song is illustrated, when they detail “We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?”.  Again, they approach this story of discovery and illustrate the issues this country was founded on.  As many people know, Downie had dedicated his later years to reparations with Canada’s Indigenous people.

 

Thank you Gord for your stories, candor, and love for this country.

 

Now these aren’t the only stories if you are curious to see more check out: http://hipmuseum.com/window.html

 

 

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