Perry Bellegarde on Gord Downie: ‘He will continue to walk with us’

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations on Downie’s advocacy for Indigenous peoples and his continuing legacy

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Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) looks on as Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie (2nd R) is presented with a blanket during an honouring ceremony at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, December 6, 2016. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

Bellegarde looks on as Lakota Sioux Donnie Speidel honours Downie with an eagle feather and name at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., in December 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Perry Bellegarde is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Canada lost an extraordinary musician, wordsmith and advocate when my friend Gord Downie went on his final journey. This great Canadian earned the Lakota name Wicapi Omani—“The Man Who Walks Among the Stars”—and proved a great ally of First Nations peoples.

As a man of words, Gord’s lyrics and his poetry held up a mirror to Canada. He sang not only about its beauty and accomplishments, but also its challenges, hurdles and painful history. But it was always clear he loved this land and believed in its potential as a place of justice, fairness and community. He was driven to use his platform to make the country he loved a better place. His words were his activism.

It was truly inspiring that Gord used his final years to shine a light on the inequalities experienced by First Nations peoples. Allies like Gord are important because they reach people who, through no fault of their own, may not be engaged in First Nation priorities. Gord introduced millions of Canadians to the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who has come to represent the thousands of children subjected to the residential school system, one of many taken from their family never to be seen again. Gord’s devotion to sharing Chanie’s story shone some light into a dark history and helped stoke the fire of reconciliation.

MORE: Our obituary for Gord Downie (1964-2017)

His advocacy was worthy of honour—the highest honour. After an exhausting nationwide tour, Gord took to the road with his book and music about Chanie’s story, Secret Path, with proceeds being donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Even as his illness was taking its toll, Gord was devoting his energy to educating and inspiring Canadians to work towards true understanding and reconciliation. And in December 2016, our Assembly of First Nations lifted Gord up; chiefs, elders and youth joined together for a powerful, emotional ceremony, witnessed by the Prime Minister of Canada, as we honoured him with a song, a star blanket, and an eagle feather.

Afterwards, he shared his thoughts on the need for healing and a positive relationship between Canadians and First Nation peoples. Gord summoned his strength and said, “Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there’s 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate, and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school. To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives.”

MORE: Read Maclean’s original 1967 story on Chanie Wenjack

I was greatly honoured when I first met Gord and I was struck by his humility. His caring, compassion, charisma and intelligence were evident, yet he had a natural ease and attitude that made you feel like an old friend and neighbour. There was no arrogance. Gord was genuinely interested in people, in sharing ideas and stories. I smile when I recall that he also gifted me one of his hats—that distinctive, inimitable trademark fedora. He gave me something personal that I will always cherish, just as I cherish my memories of my time with Gord.

His music was part of the Canadian landscape. It always seemed to be floating in the wind. It is hard to believe we have lost this great man.

THE RUNAWAYS PROJECT: The stories of others who escaped residential schools

And yet, he is still with us. We continue to feel the impact of his art, activism and charitable work. The Downie Wenjack Fund will continue to contribute to reconciliation. His words and actions will continue to inspire, to change hearts and change minds. I look to my own traditions when I think of his final journey. Just as in this life, there are many different paths to follow when one crosses over to the next stage of their journey. One role is guardian, protector, and spiritual advisor for those still here. In my heart, I see Gord doing this for all of us.

He will continue to walk with us, whispering in our ears and urging us with love and faith to follow the path of reconciliation, his positive spirit advising us to be better neighbours, his life a story of what can be done when one man uses his Creator-given talents to make a difference.

We have lost an incredible talent, advocate and friend. The Man Who Walks Among the Stars is now truly walking among them, and we can all be guided by his light.

My dear friend: safe travels until we meet again.