Gord Downie’s Legacy Flame Flickers On In Brain Cancer Research, Environment, And Indigenous Populations

The family of Gord Downie, frontman for the Canadian rock band, the Tragically Hip, has not announced the date or time of Downie’s official funeral after he passed away Tuesday night at the age of 53 from brain cancer. But as a nation mourns, the memorials, obituaries, and eulogies have already begun and span the nation, reaching well beyond what is now known as the Gord Downie Brain Cancer Research Fund.

As Maclean’s reports in their Gord Downie obituary, while Canada bids farewell to a beloved family member, one thing is clear; the legacy flame lit by Gord Downie is one that will forever flicker in the country he loved so much.

In addition to a lifetime of lyrics and prose, the legacy Downie leaves behind is an award-winning one in the arts, education, brain cancer research, the environment, and reconciliation with the indigenous population of Canada. For his work that spanned many facets of Canadian culture, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip won the Order of Canada; an award not received by your average musician.

But Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip are anything but average.

Gord Downie began performing music for an audience when he was in high school as a member of a band called the Slinks, reports Maclean’s. Then, he was just covering the Rolling Stones. By the end of his career, he toured with them and picked up some bling along the way.

That bling includes Juno Awards that go back to 1990 when the Tragically Hip won the Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year. They would win Group of the Year Award again in 1995, 1997, and 2017, and many more awards along the way.

By 2005, and 14 studio albums later, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip made it into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. By 2017, Gord Downie had five solo albums on his resume, a published book of poetry, and cameo appearances in Men With Brooms, the Trailer Park Boys film, and television’s Corner Gas.

But that’s only part of the Gord Downie story. In fact, that’s only the start of the Gord Downie story.

Through it all, he showed his love for his country, and Canada gave that love right back. As Maclean’s notes, “Downie faced a sea of literal flag-waving at almost every single show.” Today, Canada’s flags are down.

Gord Downie was once quoted as saying, “I love my country. I love my vision of this country.” Americans sometimes felt that the band wasn’t as big as Canadians thought because they never made a big break in the United States. But there are Americans today feeling this loss and showing their love for Canadians and the Gord Downie legacy.

To Gord Downie, not breaking in America was the point. The Tragically Hip was strictly Canadian, through and through. Their award-winning albums and multi-million-dollar concert tours are just one droplet of indelible ink that Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip leave on the nation mourning today.

It was December 2015 when Gord Downie was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer; one that impacts two out of every 100,000 people. The cancer is called glioblastoma, and it is the same cancer that American Senator John McCain has.

Like many brain tumor sufferers, Gord Downie’s tumor was diagnosed almost by accident when he had a seizure just a few days after his father died, reports Maclean’s. Many patients with brain tumors go to the doctor for one thing and come out with a life-changing diagnosis. This was the case for Gord Downie, whose diagnosis would be life ending.

In December 2015 Gord Downie was told the clock was ticking and that 95 percent of those diagnosed with this aggressive, high-grade brain tumor do not survive. By May 2016, he had undergone craniotomies, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and he went public with his diagnosis.

His country started mourning when he went public with the information. But not Gord Downie. He went to work.

When it was announced that the Hip would be performing a swan song tour to raise money for the Gord Downie Brain Cancer Research Fund, even his colleagues were surprised. One described the experience.

“I would get very jumbled emails when he was in treatment, or texts at odd hours of the night. When he said they were going on tour, I said, ‘Are you okay? Are you sure?’ Then I understood his reasoning, not the least of which was doing it for the guys, which was really lovely.”

As Maclean’s notes, what followed from the launch of that swan song tour was the transformation of a rock icon to a tragic hero. It was sort of the Terry Fox story in reverse, with the difference being that Gord Downie actually accomplished his goals for brain cancer research before he left this plane.

His work and love for Canada was so profound it led Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to weep when issuing a statement about the loss of Gord Downie, reports Global News.

“Gord’s command of language was profound. He painted landscapes with his words, elevating Canadian geography, historical figures, and myths. When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian. Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was raw and honest – like Gord himself.”

Gord Downie is now a Canadian icon, almost as big an icon as the sport of hockey. But even hockey fans and hockey superstars alike know the true star quality of Gord Downie. Doug Gilmour, a Canadian hockey Hall of Famer, issued a statement after Gord Downie’s passing hit the airwaves.

But a few words of grief are not the only things Gilmour has done for Gord Downie. When he first learned of Downie’s disease, he launched a campaign to raise money for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Hospital. It was the light of one star igniting another when Doug Gilmour launched the “Let’s Do it for Gordie” campaign, reports CHCH.

A visit to the website of the hospital in Toronto that treated Gord Downie makes it clear just how Downie’s light shone in Sunnybrook. The Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research lives on, and the website says all donations “help Sunnybrook’s world-leading researchers and surgeons develop innovative and non-invasive treatments for glioblastoma and other aggressive, inoperable brain tumors.”

Sunnybrook says they’ve also established a Gord Downie Fellowship Fund. This is a fund where the light of Gord Downie will flicker in the lives of promising medical students researching a cure for glioblastoma and other brain tumors. Sunnybrook says that “every donation will provide courage.”

They do this by investigating new drugs, surgical techniques, and even genetic therapies. Sunnybrook is also looking into ways that ultrasound can help drugs to access tumors where they couldn’t have before. These treatments will help not just Canadians but patients from around the world that go to Sunnybrook for tumor treatment. Dr. James Perry of Sunnybrook and Gord Downie’s neuro-oncologist says there is some hope for glioblastoma patients in the future with this research.

“When we’re talking about glioblastoma, it’s incurable. But the survival time is getting longer. Now 10 to 20 percent of our patients survive for five years. Until the oral chemotherapy drug temozolomide came along, almost no one survived that long.”

Dr. Perry also says he’s had one patient survive as long as twenty years, but he does not know why she got so lucky. He says, “it’s all in the molecular profiling – the pathways that control the tumor.” He’s also hopeful that the two to five-year survival rate will go up.

“Courage” is the name of one of the Hip’s hit singles, and its lyrics seem almost prophetic in light of Gord Downie’s diagnosis and tragic passing. The team at Sunnybrook Hospital that helped treat Gord Downie and helped establish the Gord Downie Brain Cancer Research Fund paid tribute to Gord Downie to thank him, using the song that millions of Canadians love so much.

Watch this moving tribute here, and Dr. Perry can be seen early in the clip wearing a white coat and baseball hat.

Sunnybrook Hospital is also offering Gord Downie fans a chance to leave a memory or tribute message to Gord Downie on their web page.

“Messages will be compiled and offer inspiration for Sunnybrook’s world-leading researchers and surgeons who are developing innovative, non-invasive treatments for glioblastoma and other aggressive, inoperable brain tumors.”

But saving the lives of Canadians with brain cancer in the future was not Gord Downie’s only mission in his final year. He also established the Downie Wenjack Fund, a fund aimed to continue the work of reconciliation of the indigenous population of Canada.

The Downie Wenjack Fund page says that the work there is all about starting new relationships with the indigenous population. Gord Downie, along with his brother Mike, focused their work on the residential school system and the role it plays in Canada’s indigenous people.

The fund is named after Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died when he ran away from a residential school in 1966 and froze to death. The fund, and Downie’s graphic novel and fifth solo album, Secret Path, were established to raise awareness and inspire Canadians to act in the name of reconciliation with the indigenous people. Funding is used to provide grants to community programs and projects that are aligned with this vision.

When Gord was promoting this fund on Canada’s 150 anniversary this past summer, he said the following.

“Let’s not celebrate the last 150 years. Let’s celebrate our next 150 years.”

Today, the Wenjack family says Gord Downie is beginning the next stage of his journey, and they mourn the “man who walks among the stars.”

It would be this work that would lead to Gord Downie receiving the Order of Canada award. But even that is not the only flame of the Gord Downie legacy that will flicker on in Canada for the next 150 years.

In Kingston, where he was born, he became especially interested and active in the environment. He joined the board of a Canadian water charity known as Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and became an activist for clean water.

But he wasn’t just a board member. He did casework, spoke at hearings, and undertook tenuous research in the field of clean water. KingstonRegion.com reports that for those efforts, a popular swimming dock near the Kingston water treatment plant would be renamed the “Gordon Edgar Downie Pier.” The Mayor of Kingston had this to say about Gord Downie’s legacy that extended beyond brain cancer research.

“I think this is a great legacy for Gord and speaks to his vision for Lake Ontario.”

Gord Downie spent his last year following his own instructions, which were to “do the work, create the spark.” His last days were spent lighting as many sparks of hope he could find.

He last performed in Ottawa over Canada Day to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, and he also performed in Toronto with fellow iconic Canadian rock band, Blue Rodeo, to sing “Lost Together.” Today, Canada is feeling a little “Lost Together.”

To echo the words of a favored Hip single, Canada’s need to draw courage in the face of the loss of one of their own couldn’t have come at a worse time. But Canada is left with the solace of Gord Downie’s legacy flame that will flicker on for generations and may even save or extend lives through the Gord Downie Brain Cancer Research Fund.

In the words of one of the Hip’s hit singles, he was “Ahead by a Century.” No dress rehearsal, this was Gord Downie’s life. For Canada this week, “this is our life” too.

[Feature Image by Arthur Mola/AP Images]