Yellowknife residents are mourning the death of Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie. The lead singer of the iconic Canadian band, the Tragically Hip, Downie, 53, passed away Tuesday, of terminal brain cancer.

Yellowknife artist Hovak Johnston plants a kiss on the cheek of a smiling but frail Gord Downie in June of this year. Johnston and Downie received awards from the governor general that day. His fans across the city were mourning the Canadian icon’s death this week. Photo courtesy of Hovak Johnston

Downie died Tuesday night “with his beloved children and family close by,” the band said in a statement on its website Wednesday morning.

Downie, who was a married father of four, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2016.

Yellowknifers turned out by the hundreds at several locations in the city to watch the band’s final concert live from Kingston, Ont., the band’s hometown, in the summer of 2016.

Fans gathered again earlier this year for a Tragically Hip tribute show at the Top Knight with proceeds going to charities in honour of Downie.

Isis Essery, a Yellowknife graphic artist, had a closer relationship with Downie than most people. She designed the last ever Tragically Hip album – Man, Machine, Poem and Downie’s solo album The Secret Path for which she won a Juno Award for Package of the Year.

“The work I did on The Secret Path deluxe package included the album, book and 10 posters which I designed with (Gord’s) handwritten lyrics. His legacy will obviously be his music which has moved so many Canadians. He thought his most important legacy was The Secret Path,” Essery stated. “He wanted to bring the injustice of residential schools to light and felt that telling Chanie Wenjack’s story was his greatest accomplishment. I worked on this project quite significantly from Yellowknife. Gord’s live performance of The Secret Path was my last day in Toronto before permanently moving here almost exactly a year ago.”

Hovak Johnston, a Yellowknife Indigenous artist and writer, was with Downie in June when they both received awards from Governor General David Johnston in Ottawa.

“He was a great musician, a great Canadian and an even better human being who did a lot of humanitarian work and brought a lot of attention to Indigenous issues,” Johnston said. “I highly respected him and am extremely grateful for the work he has done for our country. He’s a true legend. Nobody was able to show the love and respect for First Nations people to the world like he did.”

Indeed, during the final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ont. last August, Canada watched as Downie told the nation it was time to get serious about reconciliation with with Indigenous communities.

Addressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who was in the audience, Downie said Canadians “were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word” of what was happening in Northern Indigenous communities.

“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,” Downie told the audience.

Yellowknife resident Nicole Latour first met Downie when he appeared at Folk on the Rocks in 2001 as a solo artist.

“Gord was touring with his back-up band called Dinner Is Ruined, promoting his first solo album called Coke Machine Glow and he kicked off that tour here in Yellowknife,” Latour said. “I was a volunteer and got to be his driver.”

She said she saw the Hip numerous times including during the final tour in the summer of 2016 in Edmonton. Latour has Tragically Hip memorabilia hung on the walls of her apartment and even has a kerchief that Downie used to mop his brow when performing that he gave to her at a concert.

“I shed a tear when I heard he had died. He was a true Canadian. I’m pretty sure he has maple syrup in his veins, “Latour said. “He may be gone but is very alive.”

Nancy MacNeill, co-organizer of this year’s Hip tribute show in Yellowknife, said she was not shocked but was saddened to hear of Downie’s passing.

“We really hoped this wouldn’t happen. We knew it was going to but you just hang on to that little irrational thought that maybe it won’t. But reality has now hit,” MacNeill said. “We’ve all been reliving those moments and those songs that make us feel amazing. It’s a sad day but also a day to indulge ourselves.”


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