Gord Downie breaks down at emotional First Nations ceremony
Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was overcome with emotion during a special Hunka ceremony held by the Assembly of First Nations chiefs.
By Chris Jancelewicz

The Assembly of First Nations honoured Canadian artist and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie Tuesday in Gatineau, Que. for his work on Reconciliation.

In September, Downie released a graphic novel, music album and movie combo, The Secret Path, which tells the story of 12-year-old Ojibway boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died from hunger and exposure trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. With The Secret Path, Downie aims to educate Canadians about Wenjack’s story and residential schools.

The Assembly gave Downie a star blanket and he participated in a naming ceremony; he was given the name Wicapi Omani, which means “walks with the stars” in the Lakota language. He was also presented  with a specially commissioned painting and an eagle feather in front of the Chiefs-in-Assembly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and members of the Downie family.

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If you’re not Canadian, this won’t mean much to you. It means a lot to me.

I’ve been crying for five hours and I can’t stop. Two Canadian heroes embracing at The Tragically Hip’s final show before Gord Downie’s illness escalates, which it will very soon. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Canada’s most cherished rock star was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and has gone back to his hometown of Kingston to give one last concert.) There were tears in both their eyes when Downie addressed Trudeau in sincere appreciation of his leadership. I felt so connected to everyone in Canada, watching that. Everyone was watching, everywhere, because The Tragically Hip writes music for everyone – unpretentious, insightful, relatable, and specifically Canadian. It was becoming difficult for Downie to continue with each encore, struggling to remember all the words to his hits, needing help from his band to get up and down the stairs, gritting his teeth, hugging himself, clenching his eyes shut as the tears welled up, fighting harder to put on a good show when it seemed to suddenly hit him that it would be the very last in his life, and not wanting it to be. It’s so difficult to say goodbye. And through all this, he was still the delightfully awkward, passionate, flirtatious character that we know him to be. Half camp counsellor, half disco ball, with a glittery pink suit and a pinecone on his hat. It was a truly remarkable and profoundly emotional performance. I’m so glad that our Prime Minister was there. This was very meaningful. People will be talking about this concert for a long time. There was so much love and gratitude at this show. You know it’s a quintessentially Canadian band when fans in the audience are holding up signs saying, “THANK YOU!” Gord thanked each of his band mates with a kiss on the lips. His address to Justin Trudeau tonight will go down as one of the most iconic moments in Canadian cultural and political history. 

“Thank you, everybody. Thanks for listening to that. Thanks for listening, period. Have a nice life.”

Gord Downie Uses Concert To Spur Trudeau On First Nations
"It's really, really bad, but we're going to figure it out, you're going to figure it out."

With most of Canada watching The Tragically Hip’s emotional televised concert, lead singer Gord Downie handed the prime minister a hell of a mandate.

Downie, who revealed earlier this year that he has terminal brain cancer, praised Justin Trudeau several times during the show in Kingston, Ont. on Saturday night — and highlighted what he expects the PM to accomplish for Canada’s Aboriginal people.

“We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands,” Downie told the live audience, as cameras cut to Trudeau who was in attendance. “He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.

"And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been … (but) we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.”

A few songs into the band’s nationally televised concert, Downie said: “Prime Minister Trudeau’s got me, his work with First Nations. He’s got everybody. He’s going to take us where we need to go.”

He continued, “It’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there, but it isn’t cool and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad, but we’re going to figure it out, you’re going to figure it out.”

Trudeau’s Liberal government has pledged to improve the quality of education and health care for Canada’s indigenous people, as well as implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the shameful legacy of residential schools.

There are also long-standing issues in delivering clean water and upgrading infrastructure on many First Nation reserves.

Downie’s endorsement of Trudeau was equal parts admiration and challenge.

“He’s going to be looking good for about at least 12 more years, I don’t know if they let you go beyond that. But he’ll do it,” Downie, 52, told concertgoers between songs.

Trudeau could be seen nodding and mouthing “thank you.”

Downie and the Tragically Hip are known for their activism. Downie has served on the board of environmental group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He’s also performed concerts near James Bay to raise awareness of the many issues facing those First Nations communities.

Downie and the band met Trudeau before the landmark show that marked not only the last stop on the “Man Machine Poem” tour, but also an event watched by fans in living rooms, bars, and public squares across the nation. The band’s hits have provided a soundtrack to many Canadians’ lives through the last three decades.