Gord Downie’s legacy, five years after his death

Take a moment and remember where you were when the news came out on October 18, 2017. 

We knew it was coming but it hit like a punch to the heart: Gord Downie, singer, poet, artist, musician, friend, advocate, had passed away from a nearly two-year fight with glioblastoma

While we learned the news the morning after, Downie passed away, surrounded by family, on October 17, making today the five-year anniversary. 

While there was never any doubt that we’d keep his memory alive and celebrate his musical contributions, so much has been done in his memory and to honour his legacy. 

Take, for example, the incredible Downie Wenjack Fund. Created in 2016 by Gord and the Wenjack family, the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund promotes the reconciliation of Canada with its First Nations people, particularly with calls to action focused on education and matters of equity. 

Each October, from the 17th to the 22nd, the organization hosts Secret Path Week, a time in which Chanie’s story is told: The young Anishinaabe boy was just 9 years old when he was forcibly taken from his family in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve and placed in the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. Three years later, Chanie, unable to bear it anymore, decided to walk home, not knowing it was 600 kilometers away. Terribly, heartbreakingly, Chanie died on the railroad tracks while trying to go home to his family, found a week later after having succumbed to starvation and exposure, on October 22, 1963. 

Participants of all ages who want to participate are asked to take “ReconciliACTIONS” to help create a respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians and to continue to seek truth about the children lost to the residential school program. Many schools work the fund to provide education on Chanie’s story and to host walks within their neighbourhoods to help symbolically bring Chanie home. 

Thousands of children have participated in these walks every year since they started in 2017. Schools have worked with the fund to become Legacy Schools, with thousands of schools across Canada participating to “engage, empower and connect students and educators to further reconciliation through awareness, education and action.” 

As of March 31, 2021, there were 2,055 Legacy Schools across Canada, with 2,602 educators registered with the program in all territories and provinces, in rural, urban and suburban areas. That translates to an estimated 65,050 students participating.  

The fund provides education materials, lesson plans, resources and other items to help “ensure that the unique interests, rights and perspectives of Indigenous people are recognized and implemented in schools and communities” across the country.

Funding brain cancer research

Separately, there’s the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, the hospital where Gord received treatment for his aggressive brain cancer. From the time his diagnosis was made public, in May 2016, through June 2019, more than $2.5 million was raised to help fund new research and treatment options for others diagnosed with glioblastoma. More specifically, the money raised in Downie’s name has funded the Gord Downie Fellowship in Brain Oncology; construction of the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre, housing clinical and research space for neurologists and the Centre for Neuromodulation where clinical applications of focused ultrasound treatments to specifically target tumors while leaving other cells and brain tissue untouched will be developed; research for personalized glioblastoma radiation treatment; and adoption of an institution-wide approach for cancer care for Indigenous patients. 

A warrior for water

In addition to music, reconciliation and education, Downie was a big proponent and advocate for clean water — and access to clean water for everyone, for drinking and recreation. 

While it was in the works before his death, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper opened the Gord Edgar Downie Pier on July 26, 2018, in Breakwater Park in the Tragically Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The pier is close to where Downie grew up and is co-named for his father. When it opened, it was the first urban deep-water swimming pier in Canada. 


Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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