Photo by: Jag Gundu for the Roy Thomson Hall Archives
Slowly, throughout the much-anticipated Gord Downie solo performance of his new Secret Path record at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, something remarkable happened: the focus of the evening shifted away from Downie himself.
The evening was dedicated to Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year old boy who died of exposure almost 50 years to the day after escaping from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario and trying to walk the 600 kilometres home to his family in Ogoki Post. For reference, try calculating directions between these two places on Google Maps and see what happens.
Surrounded by a packed house, (eventually) Downie took the stage well over an hour-and-a-half after his performance was scheduled to begin. An issue with ticketing entrance kept the seats empty way too long but we were assured, naturally, that good things come to those who wait.
When Downie did take the stage, backed by what his older brother Mike (something of an emcee for the evening) called a “fantastic band of friends” that featured Secret Path co-producers Dave Hamelin of The Stills, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies, Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers and Charles Spearin of BSS/Do Make Say Think, the denim-on-denim clad singer trudged back and forth on the stage amidst rousing applause, often looking away from the crowd and waiting for “The Stranger,” the first song off Secret Path to begin.
At first, the crowd hung off every word he sung and every move he made, though they were understated compared to this summer’s Tragically Hip tour.
But again, slowly, the overhead animated film based on the album’s accompanying graphic novel by Jeff Lemire sucked in the crowd and, as a collective, we became much less concerned about how Downie was “doing” in his ongoing battle with terminal brain cancer and more engulfed in what was happening all around us: our collective conscience was being alerted to a problem that, for far too long, white Canada has overlooked.
“Applause will get harder,” said Downie mid-set, which was about all we heard from him. “And that’s okay. Okay?”
Many buried their heads in their hands during his performance of “Son” as the animated film (which also aired across Canada on CBC last night) detailed the torn relationship between Wenjack and his father. Even the most tender and buoyant of tracks, like album standout “Seven Matches,” which grew from a simple strumming number into a rousing piano-driven folk-pop track, was laced with the feeling of loss. One by one, we looked away from Downie and watched Wenjack use each match on his journey home until there were none left.
Being part of the evening hurt at times. We were watching a man dedicate what could be some of his last time on Earth to an issue grave and serious to the country he's so associated with. What hurt more was knowing that it took Downie and this project to actually open my fucking eyes to the grave injustice that was committed in this country for so long.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Downie perform solo gigs many times in the past but every time, perhaps aided by the many Tragically Hip fans screaming out for him in the vein of a Hip show, it felt like I was in some part watching a member of Canada’s national house band just stepping out for a quick second.
Saturday night was different: The Tragically Hip were the furthest thing from everyone’s mind.
This was a powerful and intensely sad evening that saw Downie, as he performed the ten tracks from Secret Path in order, become less of the sole activist and more of the vessel for emotions to flow through. Something bigger was at play. With what felt like countless members of the Wenjack family seated in front, the crowd was forced to reconcile with a harsh truth. 150,000 young, native children were needlessly taken from their homes and forced into residential schools in an effort to strip them of their culture and assimilate them.
Gord Downie isn't the only artist making work inspired by the story of Chanie Wenjack, and he's taken some criticism for the lack of Indigenous involvement in Secret Path. But there's a specific resonance to Downie as the mouthpiece. Perhaps the reason so many Canadians feel so strongly attached to Gord Downie, the performer, is because of how easily he reminds us of comfortable places: backyard BBQ’s, cottages, basements with friends. In short, Downie reminds us of home. And here was Downie, his voice sounding pure and far less ragged than it has in the recent past, singing about that very notion: trying to get home.
Throughout the evening, we realized that the comfortable idea of “home” was robbed of so many young children. And that the settler Canadian idea of "home" was built upon this displacement and subjugation of the nations that were here before us.
“Let's not celebrate the last 150 years,” said Downie tolds the end of the evening, in reference to Canada’s upcoming 150-year anniversary next summer. “Let's celebrate the next 150 years. Just leave it alone.”
Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.Gord Downie
Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.
In Secret Path, a record that has been finished for three years but is now seeing the light of day, Downie has done his part. Tragically Hip songs were always open to interpretation but as this summer’s tour proved, they were often used as a unifying force. Eventually, slowly, Secret Path may unite Canadians in a way we never could’ve imagined, by bringing the millions of us straddled within a few hundred kilometres of the United States towards the oft-neglected Aboriginal communities hundreds of kilometres farther North. This is the explicit goal of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, established by Downie and his brother Mike: "a movement to jumpstart reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples and "end the pattern of misunderstanding, betrayal and ignorance shown to First Peoples."
But first, as the hushed, chatterless evening proved, Secret Path should compel many Canadians to look inwards and question our own sentiments about a problem long overlooked. Tissues were handed out upon entrance into Roy Thomson Hall for patrons and were then eventually collected in birch buckets upon exit to be burned in a sacred fire at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg. Many in attendance needed them.
The gravity of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer cannot be overlooked. The true impact of Secret Path and Saturday’s performance may take much longer to be felt.
Things have surely started though.
“This,” Downie said as he left the stage, pointing to the Wenjack family, “will get things going.”