POP GOES THE POLITICS
Gord Downie’s good intent
LEAH SCHEITEL // COPY EDITOR
Pop culture has become something higher-than-thou in modern times. Celebrities and cultural icons are looked up to for everything from fashion choices, lip injections, self-love, body hair trends, and who, in fact, did wear it best. But there is one topic that seems to polarize fan-bases and spark intense debate about the place of celebrities in our fragile world – and it is, of course, politics.
Celebrities can use their platform to promote products and events, but if they use it to articulate a political stance or argument, they risk facing a wave of criticism, alienating themselves from the very people who built their platform for them.
However, what is a platform if it is left unused? Pop culture icons can help bridge people, giving people on opposing ends of any argument a common talking point and something to relate to. They can also be an influential communication channel, reaching millions with a Tweet or an Instagram photo.
In the past year, no other Canadian icon used their platform as strategically as Gord Downie. The late Tragically Hip front man used his voice to raise awareness about the plight of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and just how important reconciliation is for our society to progress.
Before his death, Downie dedicated all his efforts – creative and otherwise – to educate people about Canada’s less than kind history towards Indigenous people. His efforts are epitomized in his fifth studio album Secret Path, which tells the real-life story of Chanie Wenjack, who ran away from a residential school in 1966. Wenjack died of starvation while trying to find his way home. He was 13 years old.
This was one of Gord Downie’s final messages to us, as Canadians. It wasn’t an ode to the Prairies, or a salute to Canadianisms. This story, to Downie, was the most important for him to tell.
In July, Downie was awarded with the Order of Canada, the highest to be bestowed on a Canadian citizen. While he received the award for his fight on behalf of Indigenous people, he was also criticized. To some, it was callous to use his voice to tell Indigenous stories rather than sharing his platform with those who actually experienced the stories. As Thomas Clayton-Muller, an Indigenous activist, described Downie’s Order of Canada award for the CBC, “I saw a white man honouring another white man. One was the official spokesperson of the Queen of England. The other was being honoured for his work on Indigenous issues in a space meant for our residential school survivors and the very best of our Indigenous leaders.”
At the Tragically Hip’s last concert, a nationally televised event watched by over 11 million people, in the summer of 2016, Downie used the stage to say he believed Justin Trudeau was the leader Canada needed to successfully navigate reconciliation. “We’re in good hands folks, real good hands. [Trudeau] 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,” Downie said.
While this claim stemmed from good intentions that is quite the task to set for one political leader, and while charming, it can be argued that Trudeau has done no better on this issue than previous prime ministers. In September, the CBC reported that the suicide rate in Indigenous communities are four times higher than the provincial average and the drinking water in some Indigenous communities is so terrible, it has been deemed a human rights violation by some. This is all under Trudeau’s gentle care.
It’s easy to understand Clayton- Muller’s frustrations, seeing white dudes pass around awards and pat each other on the back for exemplary work on Indigenous issues, while Canada celebrates its 150th birthday. But at least we can criticize Downie – we can because he is making an effort to start a bigger conversation, even posthumously. In the wake of Downie’s death, he was celebrated by multiple First Nations leaders across Canada. A Halifax restaurant also opened a “Legacy Room”, where patrons can learn about reconciliation and the terrible effects it had on generations of Indigenous peoples. Downie may have not been the most appropriate voice to raise these issues, however he started a conversation. It’s up to us to continue it.