Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, passed away on Wednesday, October 18th. Downie had an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer he discovered in December 2015. Him and his band did a final Canadian tour and bid farewell to their fans. He was extremely active in the months leading to his passing, whether it was recording new music or doing advocacy for indigenous causes. His passing leaves a huge hole in the heart of thousands of Canadian and in the cultural landscape.

You might wonder why I’m talking about him on the Comics Beat. He is not a man normally associated with comic books, but his contribution to the Canadian comic book landscape in 2016 has been, much like Downie himself, larger than life. He wrote what can be considered a Canadian bestseller, Secret Path, illustrated by Jeff Lemire. Secret Path is a graphic novel that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year-old boy who died while fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in October 1966. Chanie, like thousands of indigenous children over a period spanning decades, was taken from his home and brought to a school with the specific intent of “breaking the natives culture”. Chanie’s home was 400 miles away and died on his way back. The graphic novel also comes with a digital download of a ten song download album by Downie.

Secret Path Cover by Jeff Lemire

Secret Path tells the story of Chanie, but also the story of Canada. For Chanie and thousands more, the reality of residential schools and its abusive environment was worse than the prospect of walking for days in the cold without food to get back to their families. As we try to deal with the fallout of the truth and reconciliation commission from 2015, Canadians are trying to come to terms with a dark history of abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous children and families. As we move towards reconciliation, Secret Path aims at educating everyone on this part of history and its impact on what it means to be Canadians.

I was never a fan of the Tragically Hip, but their impact on the Canadian cultural landscape is unavoidable. For most Canadians, even if you didn’t like their music, it was nearly impossible to not like the band. Gord Downie had a particular love for Canada that oozed out of his music, his actions, his advocacy and his writing. Secret Path became a testament to his love of Indigenous culture. This story reached thousands and will be read for decades to come. Proceeds of this graphic novel are donated to the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

On the day of his passing, Canadian comic artists paid tribute to Downie, I’ve posted a few below from Michael De Adder, Kelly Tindall and Bryan Lee O’Malley. Canada lost a cultural icon last week, but his legacy will live on his music and in this heart wrenching graphic novel. If you haven’t yet read Secret Path, do seek it out, it a fantastic graphic novel.