It’s often been remarked, both within Canada and without, by we Canadians and by others, that we lack a definable national identity. The running joke for decades has been that we define ourselves mostly by being “not American”. It says something that a Molson beer commercial from a dozen or so years ago somehow struck more of a positive nerve on the subject of “being Canadian” than all the branding efforts, anti-separatism campaigns and Royal Commissions we had collectively come up with at that point.
The Tragically Hip are a Canadian rock band from Kingston, Ontario. Founded in 1984, they released their first album in 1987 and entered the upper echelon of Canada’s biggest stars* on the strength of Road Apples and Fully Completely, their 1991 and 1992 releases.
What’s with the *, you may be asking? For Canadian rock stars, the Tragically Hip are largely unknown outside Canada. And this in a country with a massive land mass and a relatively tiny population that’s still managed to produce its share of internationally famous musicians. Neil Young. Leonard Cohen. Joni Mitchell. Gordon Lightfoot. The Guess Who. Rush. BTO. Bryan Adams. Alannis Morissette. Shania Twain. Nickelback. Drake. Even Justin Bieber. The Hip, meanwhile, have built a large and loyal following in their home and native land…. and not much of one beyond its borders.
As with any good Canadian of my age demographic, I’ve seen the Hip in concert a few times; the second of those was in Las Vegas at the House of Blues, introduced by fellow countryman Dan Akyroyd and surrounded by an audience of a few hundred of the stereotypically “politest” people in Vegas at that time (i.e. Canadian tourists). While I have respect for their musicianship, and automatically recognize their best-known songs when I hear them, I’ve never really considered myself a huge Hip fan. Not that I have anything against them; some musicians have resonated with me on a personal level, such that I will pull out and play their music over and over again. Others haven’t. To each their own.
In May of 2016, the band announced that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with a terminal, inoperable brain tumour, and that they would be embarking on a national tour in support of their upcoming thirteenth studio album, Man Machine Poem. The outpouring of national sorrow at the announcement of Gord’s condition was palpable, and the tickets for this likely final tour sold out rapidly. The last date of the tour was on August 20, appropriately in their hometown, and it was broadcast live free of charge and free of commercials on CBC, our country’s frequently-maligned public national TV broadcaster. (As a friend of mine put it at the end of the broadcast, “whenever anyone asks you why we have a public national broadcaster: the last two hours were all the argument you need.”)
The national reaction to this event was, in a word, moving. A survey of media reports suggests that much of the country took a pause that night to catch at least part of the concert; I myself watched a couple of songs online. That night my wife Erika and I went to a friend’s birthday party at a Vancouver pub; on arrival, we found our only route through the pub to our friends blocked by a group of a dozen or so people we didn’t know. They’d just finished watching the concert. And they wouldn’t let us pass without us joining them in a collective hug in honour of Gord Downie. I don’t mind admitting, I had a lump in my throat.
With the foregoing as context, the bittersweet celebration / mourning (I’m honestly not sure what to call it) has made me realize something about Canadian identity, based on the people we elevate to the category of “national hero”. I mentioned above that the Tragically Hip, with Gord at the helm, are widely loved and near-universally respected despite never having succeeded in making much of a splash beyond our own borders, or particularly south of the 49th. But that, I’ve concluded, is what makes them quintessentially Canadian. The same is true of Terry Fox, a young man who lost his leg to cancer in the late Seventies, only to decide to run across Canada on his prosthetic leg to raise money for cancer research. Sadly the cancer came back, forcing Terry to end his monumental endeavour near the halfway mark and taking his life nine months later at the age of 22. However, Canadians regard him as a hero despite the fact that he was unable to finish what he started — because, dammit, he was willing to give it his all, even in the face of insurmountable obstacles. As another, more political example, Jack Layton was the leader of Canada’s perennially upstart left-leaning New Democratic Party, with at least one foot perpetually and firmly on the side of social justice and progressivism. Jack served in Canada’s parliament starting in 2004 after becoming his party’s leader, and took the party to the level of Official Opposition in the 2011 federal election. While it became known before that election that he was fighting prostate cancer, it appeared in the next few months that his treatment had succeeded. However, only a month after taking his place as Leader of the Opposition, visibly emaciated, he announced that the cancer was forcing him to take a leave of absence to deal with his health, and he passed away a month later. Jack had struggled passionately for the highest elected office in the land, but never made it. And yet he received veneration upon his death from across the political spectrum. In international sporting competition, Canadians have no problem celebrating a second-place finish; indeed, in many circumstances it’s been remarked that, in the eyes of Canadians, a silver medal is “as good as gold”. We memorialize the Canadian soldiers who fell at Dieppe during the Second World War, even though the operation that led to their deaths on a beach in northern France in 1942 was a failure.
And with all of these people, we all internally acknowledge them as our country’s heroes, without continually referring to them as “heroes”. We don’t toss that word around lightly, and when it’s appropriate, we all just know it’s appropriate. It barely even needs to be said. Gord Downie’s days are sadly numbered and when he passes, he will enter our national folklore as a figure who, for the last few months and especially on Saturday night, made Canadians temporarily unite in a bittersweet celebration tinged with grief (or grief tinged with celebration). It was a national moment of recognition for a man who, whether you like his music or are indifferent, is NOT a polarizing figure. It doesn’t matter what your politics or social beliefs were on Saturday night; if you were a Canadian, you could freely celebrate/grieve without anybody telling you the occasion didn’t deserve your celebration/grief, because nobody would and because nobody would feel the need to. It’s a rare figure in Canadian life who can inspire that. And yet Gord Downie has.
Rightly or wrongly, perhaps that’s a part of what being a “Canadian hero”, or just “Canadian”, means: you don’t need to have been the “winner”, you just need to have been willing to give it all, right to the end. I, for one, would say “rightly”.
In closing, I’ve found myself questioning the very concepts of nationalism and patriotism in the last year or two, wondering if they aren’t primitive concepts best done away with as soon as possible for the benefit of humanity as a whole. At the very least, I’ve come to the conclusion that “national pride” is particularly troublesome; whereas I used to consider myself a “proud Canadian”, that seems absurd in retrosoect since I’m Canadian only by chance, or at most by the decision of two people who aren’t me; I didn’t help found this country; and I’ve never had to fight for it or worry about whether or not I qualify to be a citizen of it. Being “proud” of being Canadian would make as much sense as me being proud of being white, or heterosexual, or male, or 44.
But this national response to Gord Downie, to his horrible news, and to the music he and the Tragically Hip have produced for the last thirty years, is something uniquely Canadian. And it’s something of which Canadians, and Gord Downie most of all among us for having inspired it, can and should be proud.