Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Gord Downie performs with the Tragically Hip in Vancouver in 2016.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Gord Downie takes the stage with Pearl and Daisy Wenjack at WE Day, July 2, 2017.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies