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

Downie set to return to stage with 'Secret Path'

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



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

Just Posted

BC Ferries has announced the welcoming back onboard of recreational travellers on June 15 after the provincial travel restrictions were lifted. (Courtesy of BC Ferries)
BC Ferries welcomes back recreational passengers

The ferries corp will relax mask-wearing in outdoor spaces

Nic Pirillo received $1,000 Youth WORK Apprenticeship Award presented to him by Erik Brooke and Catlin Chandler of Broadwater Industries, in front of the boat Pirillo built in his free time using newly acquired skills. (Photo: supplied)
Learning and earning with apprenticeship

Nic Pirillo graduated in 2020 and was awarded the Youth WORK Trades award

According to the BC Centre of Disease Control epidemiology mapping from May 30 to June 5, there was an increase of one case in the Prince Rupert area after a three-week stability of no new cases. (Image: supplied BC CDC)
Prince Rupert second dose vaccination clinic to run from June 14 to July 9

Volunteers needed for P.R. immunization clinic, recipients must register and cases back up to one

Capt. Portugal was getting into the festive spirit out working for the City of Prince Rupert and celebrating Seafest 2021, on June 12. During regular business hours Capt. Portugal is known as David Costa. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Searching out fun in the sun for Seafest 44

Families and friends can participate in weekend COVID-19 friendly activities

Seafest is underway with a sunfest theme from June 11 to 13 in Prince Rupert. Alex Hoogendorn vice president of Prince Rupert Special Events is creating sunny times making feature for the decorating contest with his son Caleb Hoogendorn on June 4. (K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Seafest 44 plans a sunfest June 11 to 13 in Prince Rupert

All events in festival are COVID-19 safe, social distancing and health protocols approved by N.H.A.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Highway notices like this come down effective June 14. Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and commercial operation have hit local businesses in every corner of B.C. (B.C. government)
Province-wide travel back on in B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan

Gathering changes include up to 50 people for outdoor events

Most Read