In the waning hours of Aug. 20, in the last moments of an emotional concert broadcast nationally from Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, the Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie sang the final words to the band's Ahead by a Century, a reflective ballad about illusions, golden lights and the lack of dress rehearsals in the living of our lives. Earlier in the year, the 52-year-old performer was diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma.
As the hometown show was the final date in what is likely to be the band's final tour, the performance was viewed as the closing act to the singer-songwriter's remarkable career.
That has not proven to be the case.
On Oct. 18, Mr. Downie will release a solo album and accompanying graphic novel called Secret Path, inspired by the story of Charlie (Chanie) Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died 50 years ago this October while running away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont. The multimedia project, which includes an animated film to be broadcast by CBC in an hour-long commercial-free television special on Oct. 23, addresses the mistreatment of indigenous children and families by Canada's residential school system.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Downie was in attendance at Roy Thomson Hall for the Law Society of Upper Canada's "Call to the Bar" ceremony. At the black-gown occasion at the home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler was awarded an honorary degree. During his address to the nearly 300 new lawyers that included the first-ever graduates of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University, the leader of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation introduced Mr. Downie, who sat in a mezzanine box with his two brothers, Mike and Patrick, and members of Mr. Fiddler's family.
"I am grateful for Gord's determination to tell the story of Charlie Wenjack and all the children who never made it home," the Grand Chief said. "We all know that achieving reconciliation will not be easy. But Gord is giving us the tools and pointing the way forward."
Mr. Downie, who did not speak during or after the convocation event, wore a ball cap and a jean jacket, the same attire he was photographed in during a post-tour trip to Northern Ontario. The CBC reported that the entire band, along with author Joseph Boyden, took part in a fishing trip that was led by aboriginal guides.
Mr. Downie, whose politically charged song Goodnight Attawapiskat from 2012 takes up First Nations issues, also visited Marten Falls First Nation, a remote Ontario fly-in reserve 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. There he visited with the relatives of young Wenjack, whose body was found beside a railway track in 1966. The boy, like many others, had been removed from his family and sent to Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, where he spent the last four years of his life.
"I know he was incredibly moved by the family," Mr. Fiddler told The Globe and Mail after receiving his honorary degree. "Just being in the home of Chanie Wenjack, and for him to be able to spend some time in Chanie's resting place, I know it meant a lot to him."
The convocation ceremony took place on the same day that tickets went on sale for Mr Downie's two upcoming Secret Path concerts. The shows are to take place at Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 18 and at Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 21. Proceeds will benefit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
"This was initially a personal journey for Gord," the Grand Chief said about the Secret Path project. "But in his own way, he's been able to make way and create an opportunity for all of us to be part of the experience and the journey of reconciliation."