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"My Dad Taught Me": Willo Downie Remembers Her Father, Gord Downie

Six years since his death, Gord Downie's daughter Willo Downie reflects on the lessons she learned from him about how to live a life of art.

​Gord Downie with a young Willo Downie

Gord Downie with a young Willo Downie

Clemens Rikken

On this day in 2017, Gord Downie died at the age of 53. The frontman for the iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip left an undeniable mark on the country's cultural landscape and its charts. In the years since, his legacy has been dissected and cemented, with tributes coming in from Drake to Justin Trudeau. He was a champion of Indigenous reconciliation, a rock and roll poet, one of the continent's best performers. He was a lot of things at once.

For Gord Downie's daughter Willo Downie, it's been difficult to grapple with the public perception of her father — who he was to the country and who he was to her. Six years since we lost him, she feels ready to reflect on the lessons he taught her and how it squares with the man the world knew through his music and writing. Now that she's establishing her own artistic career as a visual artist, Willo Downie feels grateful for the gift he gave her: a life of art, and of art as a way of life. — Billboard Canada digital editor Richard Trapunski


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Here is Willo Downie's remembrance of Gord Downie for Billboard Canada:

Willo DownieWillo DownieSean Webster

To live is to create, and what a gift that is.

The greatest gift we can give in thanks for our life is creation.

I know and feel this deeply. My dad taught me.

Six years after his death, I still grapple with the public’s perception of who my dad was. It often feels surreal and overwhelming to reconcile. To me, for so long, he was “just” my dad. King of my heart, as a young girl.

But Gord Downie threw himself earnestly into each of the roles he filled — and they were many, beyond that of being a truly amazing father.

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I can recognize that more deeply as each year goes by and I grow older myself. My understanding of his legacy is a tapestry that will continue to weave itself into completion, forever.

For as long as I can remember, my dad kept his public life very separate from his private life. His family, of course, fell under the arm of “private.” I will endeavour to respect that boundary even now, while I dive into what I consider to be a celebration of the beautiful life he led, here, in this piece.

Dad had cultivated his creativity within and around him until it had become the very foundation of his being by the time he turned thirty. And then he became a father. It’s one of my greatest points of pride — to have come from and been raised by a man who embodied, fully, what it meant to create one’s own life as though it were a work of art.

Your frame of mind. Your inner world. Your surroundings. Your relationships. Your work. It was all art to him — to be molded and shaped with diligence and intention.

The notion that we, as humans, are inherently creative beings permeated most decisions made and the interests us kids pursued… Music, painting and sculpture, food, dance, sports. Everything had an inherent beauty to it, in our parents’ eyes. Art was a vessel that could hold history, the opportunity for activism, a way to process pain and a way to celebrate joy.

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I’ll never forget my school’s grade 9 “Take Your Kid To Work Day.” Dad took me to the Art Gallery of Ontario. We spent the entire day there, absorbing each of the collections and exhibits, together. He taught me a lot about the Group of Seven that day. Emily Carr, too.

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I try to retrieve the reasoning behind that choice of his sometimes… of why he’d choose the AGO, of all places. In hindsight, I think he was trying to relay the message that his “career” was so much more to him than just one discipline, one art form. It was a way of life — the choice to move through the world in pursuit of beauty and truth. He was setting that example for me, too.

Fast forward a few years, and I can remember a specific conversation with my dad. I was choosing what to do after high school.

“Willo, what makes you happy?”

“A lot of things, dad…”

“What can’t you live without?”

“I need to paint”

“Then do that”

Then the doubt set in, and he responded, “Willo, choose, and you’ll make a way.”

That last line always stuck with me. This guy never minced his words. His choice to say “you’ll make a way” could very well have been “you’ll find a way” or, “the way will make itself known to you.” But he had chosen to try to empower me instead, to create the life and career I so desperately wanted — needed — in order to feel complete.

He was a man who continually chose to try, try, and try again. His dedication and discipline in his work got him to a place from which he was able to create with such output and raw, undiluted honesty. It was awe-invoking. Truly. The guy didn’t have an “off-switch.” He wouldn’t dare tamp down his life force — his will to create or advocate for others — for anything.

And so, his legacy: He lived to create, and he created, in pursuit of a loving, full life.

What an example to have set.

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Here is a painting by Willo Downie with Gord Downie's handwriting superimposed on top:

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