Published Oct 22, 2016This past August, a moment late in the Tragically Hip's final Man Machine Poem tour performance in Kingston found frontman Gord Downie stunned onstage, mouth agape at the reception he and his group were receiving. No one predicted what Downie, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer this year, would say to the crowd next. "I had nothing planned," he later revealed. "Then I said 'Wait a second, there's 20 million people watching. I can say whatever I want.'"
Calling upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to repair relationships with First Nations communities across the country was Downie's first step in getting Canadians to think harder about reconciliation, and the release of his new solo album Secret Path is the second. Following a show in Ottawa earlier in the week, Downie and company brought their musical retelling of the sad story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy who died on the run from an Ontario residential school, to Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.
Signs posted upon entering the venue warned that "tonight's show may trigger strong emotions," with volunteer support workers on hand for those affected. Tissues with tears were collected for release in a sacred fire at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg. More than just a night of music and live performance, the evening was an important and historical one of reflection, understanding and hope for the future in facing some of Canada's darkest history.
With over 30 members of the Wenjack family seated front and centre in the audience, Downie and his "band of friends" that included Kevin Drew, Dave Hamelin, Charles Spearin, Josh Finlayson and Barenaked Ladies' Kevin Hearn took to their respective places, to a standing ovation. Above them was a large projection screen on which the animated short film was shown. Viewing it in time with the band's performance of the album front to back made Downie's words and music hit that much harder, leaving nary a dry eye in the audience by the evening's end.
Trading in the flashy suits of the latest Hip tour for a down-to-earth all-denim outfit, the man was still very much theatrical onstage. Pacing back and forth through opening with "The Stranger," Downie's baritone was as unfailingly powerful as it's ever been, easily reaching higher registers in the more upbeat "Swingset" and "Seven Matches." Having revealed recently that his cancer has begun to affect his memory, he was flanked by two Teleprompters on opposite sides of the stage but spent little time focusing on either.
Downie briefly told the crowd that "applause will get harder later on, but that's okay," as the story progressed towards darker, more emotional numbers. His delivery remaining impassioned, the record's title track yielded more of his lively onstage mannerisms, as he gestured and reached forward to the crowd. It reached a peak with "Haunt Them, Haunt Them, Haunt Them," as Downie snarled his way through the verse sections before the song's repetitive titular refrain brought him to his knees. "Let's not celebrate the last 150 years," Downie told the crowd in closing with "Here, Here and Here." "Let's just celebrate the next 150 years."
Following the performance, the band, the Wenjack family and the Secret Path creative team were invited to the stage by Downie's older brother Mike for words of thanks and remembrance, where it was also revealed that plans were in motion to make the story of Wenjack and residential schools a part of Ontario's education curriculum. A short film that documented Downie's trip to Wenjack's Ogoki Post First Nation community, where he first met the family members, was also shown.
"He is the right person to tell the story," Chanie's sister Pearl Wenjack said of Downie in the clip. "How do I know? The Creator picked him, I didn't. I'm happy it was Gord."