The Hip’s Final Concert: From There to Here and Back Again

Guest post by Aaron W. Hughes

Six years ago this week Canadians came together in a way that they had not since Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal in the final game of 1972’s Summit Series. During the summer of 2016, we looked on, in sorrow and in celebration, as The Hip played their final concert in their hometown of Kingston. That whole summer, we followed their playlists in the national media, worried about the state of Gord Downie’s health, and watched their final tour, Man Machine Poem, meander its way eastward, like the waters of the North Saskatchewan River, where it came to a sudden halt on August 20 of that year.  

The band said farewell to us that night in Kingston and we thanked them for providing us with an abiding soundtrack to our lives. This was a Canadian band like no other. Sure, there were many bands from Canada, but here was one that gave voice to our dreams, our hopes, and our fears. They were our collective unconscious. Sure, they sold records in the States and sure they played down there, but this band was ours. 

Six years on from that final concert, the country seems more divided than ever. Freedom convoys, calls of Charter violations, American flags draped over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, anonymous online threats to independent restaurants hosting our Prime Minister. What happened? How did we get from there to here? Democracies are precious and must be nourished, not undermined by the nameless and faceless who claim to speak for the silent majority.

It may be a coincidence, but nonetheless symbolic, that exactly one month before The Hip’s last concert, Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination at the party’s national convention in Cleveland. As America was set on an impending course of divisiveness, its northern neighbour was unifying around a band on its final tour. Little did we know that hot summer night that we would be at risk of following the US’s lead.

The unity has unraveled. The blame game and the politics of resentment has taken its place. Certain groups invoke the Charter without understanding the jurisprudential tradition that supports it. Some federal and provincial politicians appeal to bases that pinpoint all our inflationary and other woes on one person. One person! If life were only so neat and tidy. This only succeeds in further fanning the flames of resentment and is more reminiscent of US-style politics than the traditional Canadian approach to reach for the middle in the name of broad consensus.

We need strong leaders across the board, not ones that speak for those who claim to be marginalized and disenfranchised. There are real marginalized and disenfranchised groups in this country, and we seem to be finding their bodies—both literal and metaphorical—on a near monthly basis. Gord Downie and The Hip sought to address these groups in their songs and, just as importantly, in their actions. We all listened as Downie called on the Prime Minister and, as our collective leader, us, to do better. Have we?

We cannot go back to that muggy evening in pre-COVID Kingston. But, perhaps, The Hip can help us water the seeds of hope and national regeneration in the here and the now. Downie sang of Canada not as a patriot, but as someone who loved his country warts and all. That love sought to make Canada better by listening and by acting. Such actions were predicated on unity and reconciliation. Downie held out great hope for the next 150 years. He called on us all to do more. He did not threaten anonymously online. He did not complain. He acted.

We can’t go back, but we can certainly go forward.

Aaron W. Hughes is the Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at the University of Rochester, NY. This year he is the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in North American Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. He is the author of 10 Days That Shaped Modern Canada.