1993 was a big year in my life. I left home to start university, voted in my first major election and became a fan of The Tragically Hip.
As a teenager growing up in Hamilton in the late 80s and early 90s, I listened to pop music and drew hearts around the faces of guys from my favourite boy bands. I loved a good dance song and a ballad even more. But in 1992, I started to make a shift. I bought my first album by a Canadian artist with the release of Blue Rodeo’s Lost Together and I never really looked back.
In the fall of 1993, I moved to Kingston to start a five-year stint in my new home as a Queen’s University student. One of the things I remember hearing among the songs and chants of Frosh Week was “You can’t live in Kingston and not be a fan of the Hip.”
I don’t know who said it, but they proved to be very wise. Fully Completely became the album. I heard it all throughout that week and in the many months to come. At keg parties, homecoming events and throughout the halls of almost all the residences I visited, those 12 songs were as much a part of campus life as lecture halls and meal plans.
Even now, 24 years later, when I hear songs such as Looking for a Place to Happen or Pigeon Camera, I can instantly feel the cold crisp air of that first Autumn or visualize the grey skies and blinding white snow of a Kingston winter.
With that album, I was introduced to Canadians that I’d never heard of like Leafs’ defenseman Bill Barilko and Nova Scotian author Hugh MacLennan. Others I had read about in textbooks like French explorer Jacques Cartier or the wrongly convicted prisoner David Milgaard but never had I heard them sung about in contemporary music.
There is no doubt that The Hip were right there with me as I matured from a naive teen to a young woman. I feel lucky to have been going through this transition at the same time that Canadian bands were also transitioning to writing music about their home country and not being apologetic about it.
Regretfully, I never got to see The Hip live, but in a sense, I didn’t have to. They made up the day-to-day fabric of life for me in Kingston. Rob or Bobbie Baker as he was known then, was my neighbour. No glitz or glamour, just a pretty house in the heart of the Queen’s student housing area. Sometimes I would see the other guys from the band pulling into his driveway. I saw Gord Downie a few times… the last time at the Via Station. We were both boarding a train heading to Toronto. The only indication that he was a celebrity was that he made his way to the first class car while I travelled in coach.
When I first heard of his terminal brain cancer diagnosis, I was gutted. Not just for what it meant for the Canadian music scene but for him as a husband and father.
In his later years, Downie used his celebrity to focus attention to Indigenous rights, forcing Canadians to confront issues long overlooked like the long-lasting devastation of the Residential School System and the current state of many First Nations communities living in the North.
Now, he’s gone.
But the gift of his artistry and activism will always remain. When my boys are old enough, I will play the Tragically Hip’s music for them. Even if they don’t share their mother’s musical taste, I hope they will see the band for all the ways that they celebrated Canada. I hope they’ll learn about and remember Gord Downie for all they ways he both entertained and challenged Canadians.
I know I will.
Photo credit: vice.com