TORONTO – The outpouring of public support in the days since Gord Downie’s death has brought comfort to the Tragically Hip frontman’s family, his brother said Friday.
“It helps with the sadness because it’s so uplifting,” Mike Downie said through tears during an interview in Toronto.
“But it actually makes you a little sadder too because you realize there’s a lot of people who are really hurting.”
Shortly before the filmmaker and “Secret Path” collaborator left for a private family gathering to honour the singer, he spoke about his struggle to comprehend a week of heavy grief and complex emotions.
Downie died Tuesday night at age 53. Nearly two years ago, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an invasive brain tumour with one of the poorest survival rates of any cancer.
Within hours of his family announcing his death on Wednesday morning a memorial started forming in the Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ont. Candlelight vigils were organized that night in the city’s market square and hours away in Bobcaygeon, Ont., a community immortalized in one of the Hip’s most popular songs.
Fellow musicians spoke of Downie’s talents in reverential tones, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke down while talking about his legacy, and Indigenous leaders spoke about his push for progress on reconciliation.
Mike Downie said the outpouring of messages left his family stunned and he’s still processing it all himself.
“It was on a national level and on a personal level at the same time,” he said. “It’s a weird combination.”
He said the family is considering a public memorial though it’s too early to say for certain what would happen.
“We’ll pull something together in the coming days, I guess,” he said.
“It’ll be something that Gord would like and appreciate, so we’ll just have to figure that out.”
Gord and Mike Downie worked together on the “Secret Path” project, an album, graphic novel and animated film about Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died after escaping a residential school in 1966.
They also established the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to serve as a catalyst in the movement towards reconciliation. The initiatives include support for educational tools and grants that enable “reconcili-actions,” or tangible efforts to help the lives of Indigenous people and unite communities.
“We want the fund to inspire people to find their own way to get involved and to make a difference,” Downie said.
Their foundation worked with Hockey Cares to connect young players from the isolated Attawapiskat First Nation with peers from Oakville, Ont., west of Toronto. A week of educational and sporting events took place around Toronto in June and the Oakville students will head to the northern Ontario community in November.
Downie hopes examples like these will encourage others to take the lead on their own ideas.
“What that really does on the whole is make people think more about Indigenous lives — something we’ve taken for granted here for a long time — and just get into that action phase. It’s a big step, but I think it’s the most important part,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity right now for Canadians to reimagine this country and think about (it as) more inclusive. A country that Indigenous people can be proud of. I think it’s coming. I think we’re open to it.”
Downie hopes Canadians will also consider the other causes his brother adopted throughout his life. Among them, he was a member of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper charity, which works to protect the Great Lakes, and a staunch supporter of renewable energy.
“Gord started a lot of little fires,” Downie said. “I hope all those fires keep burning for a long time.”
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