(Downie, left, with AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde at a special chief’s assembly in Gatineau, Que., where the singer was given a star blanket and the name
Indigenous leaders praised Gord Downie’s contribution to reconciliation as they mourned the musician’s death.
A statement released by the band he fronted, The Tragically Hip, said the 53-year-old Downie died surrounded by family and friends.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said Wednesday he knew Downie’s death was coming but he said it is still incredibly sad to know he’s no longer alive.
In addition to the music he produced over the years, Downie will be remembered for his advocacy for Indigenous communities in the North and notably his project “Secret Path”, Fiddler said.
Watch Annette Francis’ story on people remembering Gord Downie
That solo project honoured 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.
“Gord often said he was struck by that story and he couldn’t let go of it,” Fiddler said in an interview. “He wanted to make it his mission to share that story with the rest of the country.”
He also remembers when he was with Downie and Wenjack’s sister Pearl last fall in Marten Falls First Nation, in northern Ontario.
“Unlike the rock star on stage with his music, he was very quiet,” Fiddler said.
“I think one of the things I’ve said about Gord is just how humble he was. He did his work with humility and respect.”
Later in his career, Downie spoke often about issues involving various challenges faced by First Nation communities across the country.
At the band’s last concert in Kingston, Ont., in 2016, Downie challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance, to correct the wrongs that had been committed by Canada in the past.
He later put out a statement saying as much.
“We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable,” said Downie, in a 2016 statement. “All those governments and all of those churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Downie was “an ally and friend.”
“I will always be moved by the powerful moment last December at our Assembly when we honoured Gord for his work and gave him the Lakota name Wicapi Omani – Walks Among the Stars,” said Bellegarde in a statement released Wednesday.
“Today, he begins a new journey among the stars, but his music, his art, his work and his memory will always be with us.”
A frail-looking Downie wept openly at the event, wiping tears from his eyes.
He was also given an eagle feather, swaddled in a star blanket by Bellegarde and his wife and showered in gifts such as moccasins and blankets.
“I honour the life and work of Gord Downie, a dedicated and accomplished artist who used his profile to advance reconciliation and build support for First Nations peoples,” Bellegarde said in the statement.
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-with files from the Canadian Press