On May 24, 2016, The Tragically Hip's website announced that frontman Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Since then, the band has released a previously recorded album (Man Machine Poem) and went on a tour that has been documented in the new film Long Time Running. Last fall, Downie released the conceptual album Secret Path, part of a multimedia project that included a graphic novel and an animated television special about Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died in 1966 while fleeing a residential school. The Globe and Mail spoke to Mike Downie, a filmmaker who collaborated with Gord on the Secret Path project, about his younger brother's post-diagnosis burst of creativity.
How's Gord doing?
He's doing pretty good. He's holding his own.
In the documentary Long Time Running, we see him performing and we see him backstage. How gruelling was last summer's tour on him, physically, in his condition?
Before the tour began, he was excited that there would be a day off between each show. He had never had that. The shows have always been incredibly taxing and draining. But with the events that led up to him before this tour, a lot had been taken away from Gord. Being out on stage gave him something back. He used up a lot of what he had, but he got a lot back. In the film, he says he wishes it would go on forever. He probably means it.
We've seen all this creative activity from him, with some of it done before his illness and released after his diagnosis was made public. And he's recorded another solo album to come. But what has the album Secret Path, which is about something bigger than him, meant to Gord particularly?
It's deeply satisfying for him. The Secret Path project has been incredibly rewarding. For me, it's the most important thing he's done. Since its release, it's moved so far in a short amount of time. It's brought an awareness to the history of residential schools and Indigenous lives.
Has Gord's illness changed him, as far as the pace at which he works?
I'm not sure that's changed. Obviously it makes no sense for him to put anything off now. So there's an immediacy. But I think all these things that he's been working on, it's what he does. It's what he loves to do. What he's doing now, it's a reminder to him of what he was meant to do.
Is it frustrating though, to want to work, to do what he's meant to do, but not being at the height of his powers?
No, I don't think so. I wouldn't say that at all. He's a strong guy. He's been getting on with it.
Artists will put restrictions on themselves, purposely, to change up the process. Obviously Gord didn't put his illness on himself, but does he see it as an extra challenge, artistically, to overcome?
Oh, I don't know. He's always had a tremendous work ethic. But, I mean, he's not sitting around, that's for sure.
People watching the film might see Gord as an inspirational figure, perhaps even heroic. Would he be comfortable with that word, hero?
I don't think so. It's just not his way.
Besides the solo album he's recorded, what's next? More Secret Path concerts?
I honestly don't know. The continuation of the Secret Path project is the Chanie Wenjack Fund. That's the application of all that good work of the multimedia project. It's a great development and a part of his legacy, too.
He's not a guy who has been comfortable speaking about his legacy in the past.
He's not, you're right. That's a word I'm using to describe what has come out of Secret Path and his commitment to improving Indigenous lives in Canada.
You've worked with him before, on videos. But what's it been like working with him on the Secret Path project?
It's always been special. It doesn't mean we always agree on everything. He's a powerful thinker. I don't know what to say. One thing I've come to admire is his intuition. Some time he says things and I'm not so sure. I'm not sure where it's coming from. But then he's usually right.
Well, whether he's comfortable with the word "hero" or not, I'll call him that.
That's nice to hear. He's a special guy. He's the kind of brother you want to have.
Long Time Running opens Sept. 14.
This interview has been edited and condensed.