By Ilana Bernstein

Four couples, a few waiters and a dimly lit hotel bar is what it took for me to finally learn the unifying power of music. I hadn’t known until that morning, when a kind hotel staff member explained to me the story of The Tragically Hip and their final concert, the answer to lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. But until I sat and watched the couples and waiters, both young and old, cycle through clapping, tears, smiles, singing and holding on to their partners, did I understand the impact of this moment.

Downie’s lyrics captured Canadian history and heritage, touching many lives along the way. He addressed both the good and the bad, recognizing that Canada isn’t perfect. He spoke up for what he believed in. Even at his final concert, he advocated on behalf of Canada’s indigenous people. As it says in their song “Ahead by a Century,” there is “no dress rehearsal, this is our life.”

The extreme urgency for the country to say one final goodbye was palpable as the television screen showed the band play at Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario, the band’s birthplace. The concert was live streamed on television and radio across the country, uninterrupted by advertisements and drew in millions of people.

According to the CBC, over the course of the band’s 30-year career, they released 14 albums, which won them numerous awards and honors, were featured on a series of stamps created by Canada Post and each member received the Order of Canada, “one of the highest honours a civilian can receive in Canada based on merit.” The Tragically Hip became known as “Canada’s band.”

Eyes glued to the television screens, the bar patrons sat through the busyness, the last call, the clanking of glasses being cleaned and the swaying of mops. We closed out the bar watching until the final credit rolled. It was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments I have ever witnessed. I watched a people unite, overflowing with pride and sorrow. As an outsider I felt honored and grateful to watch such a vulnerable and raw moment. Yet at points I felt as though perhaps I was intruding. It was a painful goodbye. A goodbye that for these men and women was tied to their lives in ways I will never understand.

My waiter explained every Canadian has a Tragically Hip Story and asked me if after watching I then understood what this band and Downie meant to the country. Sitting in that dimly lit hotel bar, I finally did.

Downie passed away Oct. 17 at the age of 53. Perhaps Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it best when he tearfully addressed the media.

“Gord was my friend,” he said. “But Gord was everyone’s friend, it’s who we were. Our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had. And not just loved it in a nebulous ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way. He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life … We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Tragically Hip’s Facebook page.

Ilana Bernstein is a junior journalism and theatre double major and can be reached at

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