Gord Downie, 1964–2017

His place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 19, 2017 ◈ Obituary


’VE NEVER BEEN A Tragically Hip fanatic, and that’s a shame, because the two shows that I saw were the kind of show a fanatic would give an arm to have attended.

o-GORD-DOWNIE-facebook.jpgGord Downie established himself as a symbol of Canada

The first performance was in a St Catharines bar called The Hideaway, before The Hip were well-known, in the mid-1980s. We were so close to the stage that the sweat from Rob Baker’s hair was raining down on me and my friends, so we retreated into the crowd. The next and last time I saw The Hip was in 1994, in a small Kingston pub, where the band suddenly turned up for an unannounced free show. At the time I was hanging around with the curator of a local art gallery whose painter boyfriend was a close friend of the fellow who painted the cover of Day for Night. I got a call telling me to get to the pub, now, which I did, only minutes before it filled to beyond capacity.

The Tragically Hip made the most sense to me in bars, the seedier the better. I remember stepping into a Sudbury dive as the chorus to Little Bones played on the radio. I sat in the corner with my watery beer, and the song felt like the soundtrack of the place. In Sault Ste Marie, New Orleans Is Sinking. In Prince Albert, Courage. In Moncton, Ahead by a Century. Then there was Bobcaygeon, a song in a category of its own because some of my earliest memories are of the cottage my family had there, in the 1960s and 70s. We love musicians because they make music, and we love music because it captures and preserves our fondest memories like an amber that you can dance and sing along to.

Every obituary is about its author as well as its subject. We write of others to affirm our values and to praise what we hope to have within ourselves. A life lived is an object lesson, a set of actions and commitments to be appraised, celebrated, or (in some cases) denounced. And one day my friend you will arrive at the place, if you haven’t already, where the obituaries make you think, “my goodness, I’ll be that old very soon” or “she was younger than I” or (as I thought of Gord Downie) “he was the same age as me.” A selfish thought, but also human.

I am tempted to reach for the cliché that Gord Downie died before his time, but of course the time when one leaves this world is by definition his time. He died young, doubtless before he had said everything he wanted to say and before he had made everything he wanted to make. But he was also old enough to have left an indelible and enviable mark upon Canadian music and culture. The depth of his influence was revealed last May when news of a tumour went out to a stunned public. The tour that followed ranks among the most widely viewed and widely discussed in Canadian music history, as the outpouring of sentiment, then and now, attests. Gord Downie managed to do what only a handful of Canadian musicians have done—establish himself as a symbol of Canada. In this, he has joined the company of Gordon Lightfoot and Stomping Tom and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, all of whom, please note, are a full generation older.

Gord Downie committed himself late in life to causes including environmentalism and raising awareness of the Indian Residential School System. At the end, knowing his time was short, there came a final blast of creative fury. He took up the story of Chanie Wenjack, creating a book and album and film about the real-life boy who died trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. He set up the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. He became a prominent vocal proponent of Indigenous people, in a time when there were already numerous books, by Indigenous people, on numerous topics including residential schools.

An October 21, 2016 Walrus article asks, “Why is Gord Downie getting more attention for retelling Indigenous history than Indigenous artists?” The short answer is that Downie, because he was a rock star, could reach an audience few if any Indigenous authors could. That’s an unpleasant truth for those of us who are the Indigenous authors of books about the Indian residential schools, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I remember the day Secret Path arrived to fill the windows of a local bookstore where my book, Residential Schools, wasn’t even stocked. Again, the selfish but also human thoughts. I was glad the Wenjack story would get out, but I wished it didn’t take a pop-culture celebrity to do it. Are we going to have to assign a rock icon to each of the thousands of Chanie Wenjacks?

It’s too soon to say what Downie’s influence and legacy will be as these pertain to his twilight interest in Chanie Wenjack and Indigenous people generally. But his place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established. Gord Downie’s music will live on, and so will the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. May good come of it.

Too many Chiefs, not enough Indians

The Toronto District School Board is making a mockery of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 17, 2017 ◈ Current Events


T TAKES A LOT to render me speechless, but there I was nonplussed by the October 11 CBC headline, “Toronto District School Board to remove ‘chief’ from job titles out of respect for Indigenous communities.” Job titles with the word “chief” will now be replaced with “manager.”


The Toronto District School Board says its decision to scrub “chief” from the lexicon was “in the spirit of recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, or TRC. It’s a shame they didn’t spend more time with those recommendations in the flesh. Or with Indigenous people, who would have helpfully informed the board that their proposal was a cure in search of a disease, and a ridiculous one at that.

It would be easy to mock the initiative for its frivolity, but this is no laughing matter. The cynic in me wondered if perhaps the bureaucracy was undergoing an internal job title review and simply tacked-on a high-minded purpose. Indeed, the TDSB has said the move is part of a larger renaming initiative, the most generous interpretation of which is that TDSB acted alone and only afterward took to the work of selling the public on the supposed merits of its decision.

And I’ve no doubt the bureaucrats believe this is for the good of Indigenous people, in the spirit of every boneheaded policy ever made in our absence and dropped on our heads from on-high.

I’m discerning a trend, and I don’t like it, and neither do many other Indigenous folks. The trend is to read (or pretend to have read) the TRC’s recommendations and to have been “inspired” to do something symbolic no Indigenous person has ever requested and that will have no discernible material benefit.

The word “chief” can be used as a slur, but it happens also to be an honorific title. It’s considered a breach of protocol, for example, not to address the Assembly of First Nations’ leader as National Chief.

The title “chief” is widely used in the communities, but there are, in some cases, preferred usages derived from Indigenous languages. I am a member of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations, whose traditional leaders are called rotiianer. When using English, we typically render the word roia:ner (singular of rotiianer) as “chief.” If you’re ever unsure what word to use, don’t worry. The rule of thumb concerning protocol is: when in doubt, ask.

An empty gesture would be bad enough, but it’s worse even than that. The TDSB’s proposal trivializes reconciliation and makes the cause appear pernicious by putting into the minds of the public a spectre of thick-headed literalists, nit-picking school-marms and language police, set loose to hunt down and banish words deemed offensive by the Politbureau. The TRC called for a lot of things, comrades, but not for this.

I know a bit about the Toronto District School Board. I’ve been the chair of a school council, and I’ve given TDSB presentations on Indian residential schools. I’m the co-author of a book (Residential Schools: with the Words and Images of Survivors) used in classrooms and libraries across the city. The teachers and librarians of the TDSB are good people. They are making an effort to involve Indigenous people — especially those who were in the residential schools — in the work of education and reconciliation.

Fulfilment of the TRC’s “Calls to Action” is not an easy task, and the educators I’ve spoken to feel the weight of their responsibilities. They have my respect. But whatever sub-committee made this decision needs to understand that they are undermining the work of educators.

Symbolism can be powerful in a good or a bad way, and this is a case of bad symbolism. Bad symbolism misrepresents reality and diverts our attention to non-existent problems like “offensive” job titles. When the bureaucracy of an institution with great power dabbles in bad symbolism, the confidence of the public in that institution is undermined.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided specific recommendations for educators and educational institutions, such as creating age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools and providing appropriate teacher training. There’s more than enough there to keep you busy. If the TDSB needs guidance or clarification, you can have it, from the many Indigenous people who are more than willing to work with you.

But if you go it alone and as a result alienate the public with bad symbolism of your own doing, you will find it much harder to do the work that actually needs to get done.

There’s Plenty More Where Harvey Weinstein Came From

Liberal Hollywood? Nothing is more conservative than an industry built by powerful old men to exploit women.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 12, 2017 ◈ Current Events


T’S ENCOURAGING TO SEE the stars burn with indignation this week, but the spectacle would be better had Harvey Weinstein’s creepy predations not been an open Hollywood secret and a punchline before they finally became a scandal. Tinseltown’s men are making the correct noises now, but they aren’t the ones who put the former into Weinstein’s updated CV, former film studio executive. That honor belongs to female actresses and two female reporters at the New York Times, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who one week ago exposed a man who for years made a habit of exposing himself. Good riddance, Harvey Weinstein, you pig. You were forever cajoling women to watch you take a bath, and you forever looked like you needed one.

Harvey WeinsteinHarvey Weinstein is the elephant in the room.

Just as you’d expect, the Trumpians have taken to this news like the wolves that they are. Harvey Weinstein! A Democratic donor! Supporter of Hillary and Obama! And Weinstein was a donor to, and supporter of, Democratic politicians and causes. For this reason his crimes have become a symbol in the minds of many for all that is rotten within liberalism and the left. Hollywood, a pit of leftist godless sexual iniquity and deviance. A land of anarchic carnal indulgences and hedonistic arrogance. How on earth do they get away with this disregard for family values? You’ve heard the saying. When you’re a star, they let you do it.

Harvey Weinstein is gone, at least for now, but his species is far from extinct. We’re certain to revisit the sordid genre of sex, liar, and audiotape because men have made sure that the institutions which shelter and abet the Weinsteins of our world remain intact. Weinstein survived his 2015 audiotape exposure, as did a certain high-profile political candidate, in 2016. Our world still has locker rooms and casting couches. There’s still an elephant in the room, and the elephant is wearing a bathrobe, and if you don’t give the elephant a massage you will never work in this town.

So much for Hollywood liberalism. The industry clings to and conserves the outdated and pernicious garbage of our past. “I came of age in the 60s and 70s,” Weinstein said, “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” His self-defence is ridiculous, but it’s also revealing. Hollywood is a throwback to an earlier era, an essentially conservative institution where female employees are expected to indulge the whims of older men as a condition of advancement. The film critic Manohla Dargis puts it like this, in her article “Harvey Weinstein Is Gone. But Hollywood Still Has a Problem.”

Outsiders tend to see the industry as liberal, and while insiders do promote progressive causes, the business hews to a fundamental conservatism. This conservatism shapes its story recycling, its exploitation of women (and men) and its preservation of a male-dominated, racially homogeneous system. Despite pressure, including from the likes of Ava DuVernay and Lena Dunham, the industry resists change. Those in power don’t see an upside in ceding it.

Miramax won over the outside world with artful stories, but on the inside it was a toxic environment over which presided a manipulative sexual predator and rapist. For decades Weinstein prevailed against allegations of harassment, all the while honing his grotesque sexual predator playbook. (From the Twohey and Kantor Times article: “Working for Mr. Weinstein could mean getting him out of bed in the morning and doing ‘turndown duty’ late at night ….”) Weinstein ought to be a type of man consigned to the past, but he isn’t. Hollywood ought to be setting a better example, but it isn’t. It’s still an industry run by powerful men to exploit women, and there’s nothing progressive or liberal about that. On the contrary it’s conserving the very worst instincts of men, in the interests of money and power, and in that sense it’s deeply conservative. And only men can change it.