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Gord Downie praised by Indigenous leaders, fans

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde holds an emotional Gord Downie as he is given a Lakota name during a ceremony honouring Downie at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

On an August night of last year, with the country's eyes upon him and his terminal illness weighing like a stone, Gord Downie had a message for Canadians: It is time to address the hardships of Canada's First Peoples.

Mr. Downie, the astute poet who translated the Canadian experience into song, spent much of his final year channelling his waning energies to the Indigenous cause.

In a solo album released five months after Canada learned he was dying of brain cancer, the Tragically Hip frontman musically recounted the lonely death of a boy who ran away from an Indian residential school. He was opening a national conversation about reconciliation.

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First Nations leaders say they were at first startled by Mr. Downie's interest. And then, they say, they were grateful for the recognition he was bringing to the plight of their people.

In December, 2016, the songwriter wept as chiefs attending a national assembly presented him with an eagle feather, wrapped him in a ceremonial star blanket, and gave him the Lakota name Wicapi Omani, which, loosely translated, means He Who Walks Among The Stars.

"We've lost a leader, we've lost a legend, we've lost a friend and an ally, not only in Canada but throughout the world," said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who was part of that ceremony. "He opened people's eyes."

Mr. Downie was a prophet, said Isadore Day, the AFN's Ontario regional chief who also attended the renaming ceremony. "His legacy will echo throughout the ages and will have a major impact on the Canadian consciousness around what reconciliation meant in this country."

Secret Path, Mr. Downie's second-last album, was the tale of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old from Ogoki Post who died of hunger and exposure in 1966 while running away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont., nearly 1,000 kilometres from his home.

"Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada's story," Mr. Downie said in a statement to mark the release of the album, an accompanying 88-page graphic novel, and an animated film of the same name. "This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were."

Mr. Downie travelled to Ogoki Post in September, 2016, to meet with Chanie Wenjack's family and to obtain their permission for his work on Secret Path. Alvin Fiddler, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which includes Ogoki Post, was with him.

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"He was quiet and he did his work in a very humble way and he was so full of humility and just being respectful to everyone," Mr. Fiddler said Wednesday. "He wasn't the loudest guy in the room but his work, his actions, spoke volumes, and I think that is something that all of us will remember."

Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said Mr. Downie's work gave non-Indigenous Canadians a reason to think about the ongoing legacy of the Indian residential schools, where, over more than a century, about 150,000 Indigenous children were put through a program of forced assimilation.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years uncovering abuses at the schools, "we had the hope that one day prominent Canadians would hear the call for reconciliation in this country and would use their own talents and gifts to shine a light on the grave injustices inflicted upon Indigenous peoples and communities," Mr. Moran said. "Gord Downie did just that."

Partway through the bittersweet final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ont., last year, a third of the country watching on, Mr. Downie called on Canadians to do something about the Indigenous people of 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.

Certainly his Indigenous followers want that to be true. Chanie Wenjack's sister, Pearl, has said the Creator chose Mr. Downie to tell her brother's story.

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Katherine Cheechoo-Gull, a Tragically Hip fan originally from Moose Factory, Ont., met Mr. Downie about a week after the Kingston concert.

"He was the perfect person to raise the bar," Ms. Cheechoo-Gull said, "not just because of the kind of artist he was, but the human being he was."

With a report by Joe Friesen in Toronto

Justin Trudeau’s eyes filled with tears as he spoke about the death of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie. The prime minister says he has drawn 'inspiration and strength' from Downie’s devotion to making Canada a better place. The Canadian Press
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