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Gord Downie opens up about battling cancer, ‘savage’ memory loss

Gord Downie knows he’s fighting for his life.

With a voice immediately recognizable to millions of Canadians, the Tragically Hip frontman has been battling an aggressive and terminal form of brain cancer since last December.

He’s undergone two brain surgeries, rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and numerous MRIs.

But that cancer — a glioblastoma — has also inspired Downie, 52, to fight to make his mark on Canada.

Though Downie admits his memory isn’t what it once was — he’s taken to writing names and other details down on his hand — he’s embarked on a new challenge with Secret Path, a solo album, graphic novel and animated film inspired by a 12-year-old Ojibwa boy named Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack, who died from hunger and exposure after running away from a residential school.

The album and graphic novel will both be released next Tuesday, and the animated film will be broadcast on CBC on Oct. 23.

He’s also founded the Gord Downie Chanie Wenjack Fund — a project that he hopes will raise $100 million to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

It’s a legacy project of sorts — and something that Downie says likely wouldn’t be possible without his diagnosis.

In his first interview since his diagnosis, Downie sat down with CBC’s chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge to discuss his cancer, his recent cross-country tour and why he’s focusing on Indigenous issues.

A lot of people want to know how you’re doing. How are you doing?

I’m doing good. I say that on purpose — “I’m doing good!” — because I am. Everything sort of seems to make sense. I am learning how to do it, because I’ve never done it before. And it’s tricky. But I have beautiful friends … I’ve been so lucky: living here in Toronto, being in the business I’m in. I’m a very lucky guy.

On the treatment front, on dealing with the issues that are part of your life now: You’ve gone through a couple of surgeries, radiation, chemo, constant MRIs. How are you dealing with that?

You just remembered all of it better than I did. My memory is what used to be my forte, and now I can’t remember hardly anything. I have Peter written on my hand. I have a few things written on my hands. And I say that just to be upfront, because I might call you Doug, and I apologize in advance. It’s just because this is happening. It bugs me a bit, but …

It more than bugs you, that’s the impact it has. We’ve known each other for 25 years, you’ve known your kids all your life, and you sometimes have to fight to remember their names.

Yep. Super drag.

Other than memory, how does it impact?

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie

Gord Downie performs in the Tragically Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ont., during the final stop of the Man Machine Poem tour on Aug. 20, 2016. (Provided/Live Nation)

Pretty good. I think I got lucky with this. If it has to be terminal, then I got a good … I didn’t get hit by a train. It’s giving me this long kind of way to do some of these things that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m grateful.

It’s so strange how things happen. We’d gone to Kingston and spent six days, months, helping get our dad “to the door.” And the next day, we’re walking home, my mom, and my sisters and my brothers, from lunch in Kingston. And I just. (Feigns passing out.) It’s like, wow, into this. Passed out and to the hospital. And then, figuring it out.

You used the word terminal a moment ago. Did you and do see it that way?

Not really. I don’t know how it actually makes itself known … I don’t know how it deteriorates me. If you can use deteriorate as a verb. When I can’t say a sentence like that, then I’ll know something’s up.

When you see people now, you want to hug and a kiss. Why is that important to you now?

I do. Yeah. That was happening before, though, all this, strangely. My life was changing and I felt that everyone that hung in there with me, all these years, were still there — they didn’t write me off or anything like that. And they could have. So yes, hug and kiss. And my dad, Edgar, definitely kissed on the lips. And me and my brothers taught a lot of men how to do it.

You mentioned about how you helped get your dad to the door. Do you see the door?

Right now? No. No. Not … I mean, it’s just the door where you can say, “It’s cool man, you can go. Everything’s cool, don’t worry.” I said it to my grandmother and I never forgot it.

Are you in pain?

No.

Is that because they give you something for pain, or that this is not an issue about pain?

I don’t think this is going to be a pain issue thing. Like I said I think I got lucky with this one.

So we go through a summer where you and The Hip are on tour — and it’s an amazing tour. Millions of Canadians watching on television, live streaming it. What was happening there? Why do you think that was?

I really don’t know. And I didn’t expect it. I don’t think a lot of people did.

Tragically Hip Billboard 20160830

Gord Downie leads the Tragically Hip through a concert in Vancouver on July 24, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Sometimes when we try to analyze moments like that, we say: Was it something about you and The Hip? Or was it telling us more about all those people?

I think people … My hope [is it was] because I took full advantage of it. I had seven leather suits — and leather is not too cool. But I took my time, I played every other day. So as far as a singer, it was just heaven on earth. And all these sorts of provisions were made for me. Just every fantasy I’ve ever had for a show was coming true. Sorry, what was the question again?

It was trying to understand why the country reacted the way it did. Was it simply because they saw you slipping away?

Right. I think they tuned in thinking, “What am I going to see?” Not like “How bad is he going to be,” or what … Well, maybe. Maybe a bit of everything. A bit of “Aww, I love that band.” Or “I saw them once.” Or “What’s the singer gonna …” I don’t know. What I was definitely prepared for was tune in and in the first 30 seconds you’re going to see that this ain’t about that. This is about. (Imitates stage moves.)

During the tour, you had a prompter of the words.

Six of them.

It’s all right. You’re not going to get me arguing against prompters. But you never needed that before, right?

No, I always had a thing up front. Because if you’re singing a very old and important song and can’t remember the next lyric. But I hardly used it. This time was about my health. Six of them is pretty … For some reason, every line, I just couldn’t, can’t. It’s like my worst kind of punishment. Even though I’m getting a lot of — I’ve basically been describing a lot of — benefits. That’s one savage kick in the pants. Nope, can’t remember peoples’ names. And can’t remember lyrics. Sorry!

What do you think The Hip meant to those millions of followers that you had? Who came out in different ways this year to see you and listen to you one last time? There was a connection between The Hip and Canada.

I mentioned it a lot in lyrics, if that’s what you’re getting at. But never, never — and I don’t say this to my pride — but never nice. Never told it like, “Aren’t we the best!” Never. Because — I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings — but as a kid growing up, [I thought] what is it about this country that is not a country? What is it? Can’t tell. We’ve got to really help out our friends up North. I’m not putting it all on my death. But it’s put me in a position where I can actually get some attention. As I said something at the show, they really clung.

Gord Downie urges Trudeau to work with First Nations0:50

At 52, I’m really — oh my God — I’m so sorry. You people living up North can’t be gotten to. Literally, physically. I’m so sorry.

And that sorry relates to the residential school issue?

Yep. Among that. Yeah.

But it’s become the focal point of your latest project, Secret Path: The story of Chanie Wenjack. Why did this become something that you became so interested in, and so concerned about, and wanting to tell this story?

My brother Mike gave me this piece from Maclean’s in ’67, about a year after it happened in ’66. And it’s just basically a sort of thumbnail description of a boy running away from a [residential school] and trying to get home.

We can think about how little we think about up there. But it’s unbelievable. And yet the resilience, their ability to survive that. But there’s still, like they say, there’s seven generations to go. These things don’t just get fixed now, up there. There’s a lot of places not getting better, like we would expect. “Well, everything gets better.” [It’s actually] getting a little bit worse. So now we have the chance to build something that will allow us down here and them up there to realize that makes us a country.

The last 150 years aren’t as much worth celebrating as we think. But the new 150 years can be years of building an actual nation. Imagine if they were part of us and we them, how incredibly cool it would make us? That’s what’s missing as we celebrate doughnuts and hockey. Over and over and over and over again.

The question I have when you say we didn’t know about this — there were attempts to tell those stories. But there was this question about how interested we were in knowing this was a problem. It all centres around are we racist, in our attitudes towards Indigenous people?

I don’t think we are. Racist. No way. Just no exposure. It’s again a chance at a whole different world waiting for us — and I don’t think we’re racist at all. I just think we would love to be, to have this added to our country.

As part of all this, you’ve created a fund. What are you trying to accomplish with the Gord Downie Fund?

The Gord Downie-Charlie Wenjack Fund. We are hoping to bridge the gap, ultimately, between us and them. The weird thing is I think everybody in this country cares about this. That’s not me being prophetic. I think it’s true. I think it bugs everybody a little bit deep inside. Why can’t we do anything? Because it’s really frigging big and huge and impossible to imagine. But it could be just such a first great attempt from us.

What worries you now?

I want my kids to be good. I want them to be safe and have a great, long life. And take what they need from me and leave what they don’t. Definitely leave what they don’t. Being a dad, and being in a rock band, it’s harder than it looks. But we tried. And we try.

What scares you?

I don’t want to die, because my son is 10, my youngest son, Clemens. And that really scares me, obviously. But I sure want to do this right on the way out, so he’s not worried.

You’re fighting it though? You’re fighting what’s in front of you?

Yeah. For sure. Yeah, I can get more time. More time. If I try this, I can get more time.

What will make you at peace?

Just doing things. So I’ve got, I don’t know, two or three or four records sitting in the can. You know, a record The Hip are working on

We could hear more from The Hip?

Yeah. To the point where it’ll be like, “Jesus, is that guy not dead yet?” Canadians can be funny.

I guess part of fighting this is staying optimistic, staying busy.

Yeah. Even being here with you, which I was really, really scared about, to be honest, because I don’t know what my brain’s going to do. This has been great. It’s just, thinking about other things. And just really being able to talk with you.

Do you feel connected to Charlie?

Of course. I think everybody, if they just hear his story, will. I think that’s what people who see his story, they do. I’ve heard that a lot. People that just can’t shake it.

Are you resigned to the direction this is heading?

I am resigned to the direction this is heading, yes. I really am. Because I can see it and feel it … not doing some good, but it’s creating something.

An opportunity?

An opportunity, I guess. And they just don’t come around too often.

Does that make it easier to deal with what you’re going through?

Yes, for sure.  


This QA has been condensed and edited for clarity.