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Gord Downie didn’t speak much at the Tragically Hip’s final concert last Saturday, but his words of support for native people have resonated far and wide.
Gord Downie didn’t speak much at the Tragically Hip’s final concert last Saturday, but his words of support for native people have resonated far and wide.

Downie’s last stand brings hope for indigenous people Add to ...

This past Saturday night, practically every eye in Canada was on Gord Downie as the Tragically Hip performed what very likely was their last show. He took the opportunity to turn the spotlight onto indigenous issues.

He spoke about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance, stating: “We’re in good hands … he’s going to take us where we need to go.” He added that Trudeau “cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore.” The Prime Minister appeared to mouth “thank you” as the Tragically Hip frontman spoke.

During the show, which was live in Kingston, Ont., and watched by millions across the country, Downie called for justice in the North. “It’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there but it isn’t cool, and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. But we’re going to figure it out. You’re going to figure it out,” he said.

Indigenous artists across Canada were moved by Downie’s message, and the fact that he chose to give it during what might have been his final show, when he himself is dealing with terminal cancer.

“I know that he’s going through a really stressful time himself and for him to share that attention and the love that is being shown to him in this way, I think it’s a really generous act,” said Bonnie Devine, an Ojibwa artist and associate professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Robert Davidson, a Haida artist, believes Downie’s call to action will drive “some curiosity for the many Canadians who are not enlightened to the plight of the native people of Canada.”

“Gord Downie captures Canadian audiences in a way that very few people can,” added Melody McKiver, an Anishinaabe musician, media artist and arts performer. “I’m hoping that his words can also spur action.”

Downie, who’s been known for his activism in the past, has had concerts near James Bay to help raise awareness about some of the issues facing those First Nations communities. He also serves on the board of the environmental group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

“I’d been pretty aware of his activism and work in northern communities for a number of years but I appreciated how he was trying to broadcast this message to a much larger audience of Canadians, like 11 million,” McKiver said. “Most indigenous artists don’t have that scope and range.”

Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe columnist and director of film programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox, said he hopes Canadians realize the importance of Downie using his platform to highlight indigenous rights.

“Of all the things he could have said, because he didn’t really say a lot during the show, he said that twice,” Wente said. “It should register in terms of the importance of the issue for all Canadians.”

As for the future, Devine said she’s hopeful, as she’s “seeing more and more attention being paid to the issues facing indigenous people in Canada.”

“I think that we’re seeing initiatives in various areas in education. For instance, I’m seeing initiatives in the administration at the university where I teach to bring about a greater awareness about issues facing indigenous people,” she said. “And I just think among the general population we’re seeing an increased awareness.”

Devine also said that, despite the government’s tumultuous history with the indigenous people, she believes “Downie was absolutely correct in naming [Trudeau] and in addressing him directly and personally.”

“Trudeau seems willing to hear what the people are asking for,” she said. “So I’m hopeful.”

However, McKiver raised some issues with Downie’s choice to place so much faith in Trudeau. She said that her “cynicism kicked in” because “the issues are much larger than any single Canadian prime minister” and cannot be solved “with policy alone.”

On top of that, McKiver said Trudeau’s track record has shown that he doesn’t deliver, but rather that he’s “shown up and done nice photo opportunities.”

Wente referenced Site C as just one example of the government failing the Canadian indigenous community. The reference is to a controversial hydroelectric dam in British Columbia that the Liberals quietly approved before the August long weekend, something First Nations say goes back on promises made during last year’s election campaign as it will violate First Nations’ rights.

Wente, who’s “disappointed right now” with Trudeau’s action since taking office, said Downie’s words were a “challenge to Justin Trudeau to live up to [his promises], saying, ‘You’re a guest at my final show, do what you were elected for.’”

He added: “If Gord Downie can help re-centre Trudeau and help him become refocused … then he’s done an even better thing for this country than his music has.”

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