There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
I am fervently proud to be Canadian. I have one tattoo, a maple leaf, and I can't think of anything else I want to permanently etch on my body. By the time I have finished writing this post, I may be ready to get GORDON as my second tattoo. It is interesting that three great Canadians and many great Canadian things are linked to the name Gordon. In no particular order, here they are...
Gord Downie is best known as the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, my favorite Canadian band. Their music is laced with references to Canadian culture. Hockey themes abound, most notably "Fireworks" celebration of the 1972 Summit Series, the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko in "Fifty Mission Cap" and a dirge about being a goaltender in "The Lonely End of the Rink". Their lyrics celebrate notable Canadians like Bobby Orr, Pierre Trudeau and David Milgaard. Distinctly Canadian terms like toonie, CBC, prime minister and the "crown" pepper their lyrics. Even Donald S. Cherry makes an appearance as a chicken delivery man in the video for "The Darkest One".
The Hip's songs tend to mention Canadian places. Niagara Falls, Bobcaygeon, Toronton, Kingston, Cape Spear, Clayoquot Sound, Sault Ste Marie, Northumberland Strait, Churchill, Thompson, Lake Memphragog, Isle Aux Morts. I'm not completely sure, but I have a feeling that "The Paris of the Prairies" mentioned in "Wheat Kings" may be Saskatoon. I am certain that many essays and perhaps Master's theses have been written about the Hip's connection to Canada through music. Beyond the stage, Downie and the band have had cameos in uniquely Canadian television shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys.
For me, though, the quintessential Gordon Downie moment is the role he plays in Michael McGowan's film, One Week. The film is profoundly Canadian as it follows its protagonist, who has terminal cancer, on a motorcycle pilgrimage from Toronto to Tofino. Downie has a brief role as a man who meets the doomed Tyler and shares his experience of battling cancer. When I think of Canadian icons, people who have helped develop my generation's Canadian identity, I think of people like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. When it comes to people who reaffirmed my love of all things Canadian, I cannot think of a more iconic figure than Gordon Downie.
When I was a young boy, very few of my parent's record albums interested me. Albums like John Denver's Greatest Hits and Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River that contained songs I liked to play. It was Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown, however, that fascinated me more than anything. I'm not sure if it was the cover photo of a very healthy looking, curly haired and bearded Lightfoot sitting cross legged. It was one of the few albums my parents owned that included lyrics and I loved to read them over and over again. Most likely, I was drawn in to the stories the album told. I played the title track repeatedly and sang loudly when my parents were in a different room, "Sundown, you better take care/If I find you've been creeping round my back stairs".
I include Gordon Lightfoot on this list because he is one of the most successful Canadian singer/songwriters, ever. Sundown was number one on the Billboard charts and his music has a following across the world. To me, his most impressive songs are the ones that chronicle Canadian stories. "Canadian Railway Trilogy" is Canada's definitive epic poem because it tells the tale of a watershed event in our culture. Like the epic poems of the Greeks, Lightfoots's song celebrates the heroic contributions of the men who gave their lives to fulfills Sir John A Macdonald's dream. Any song that is commissioned by the CBC to commemorate Canada's centennial has to be special!
Perhaps my favorite Gordon Lightfoot song is "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." It tells a true story of a ship that sinks on Lake Superior, the big lake the Chippewa once called Gitche Gumee. Many people, including Gordon Lightfoot himself, feel that this is his best-written song ever. It is a haunting tale and a tribute to the courage of people who sail the Great Lakes for a living.
I have a signed poster of Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky in my basement. It is one of my favorite pieces of hockey memorabilia because it is actually signed by Mr. Hockey and #99 themselves. The photo was taken at the WHA All Star Game in 1978. I love this photo because it captures the end and beginning of two distinct eras in hockey. It was taken in the twilight of the upstart WHA. In 1979, both Howe and Gretzky moved on the NHL. Gordie's amazing career ended with a final year in the NHL and Gretzky's Oilers began a hockey dynasty that would change the game forever.
Gordie Howe is the consummate Canadian. He was born in a small town, grew up in the Paris of the Prairies and learned the value of a hard day's work from his father. He left home at 16 to pursue his career. He played in the NHL during five different decades, won four Stanley Cups, and played in more professional hockey games than anyone ever will play. He set a personal best for points when he was 40 years old. He got the chance to play on a line with two of his sons (a dream I hope to fulfill when my boys get older).
Gordie Howe was tough, skilled, and humble beyond belief. The first professional hockey games I got to watch were WHA games in Edmonton. At first, I wanted to cheer against him because I was an Oilers fan. As the game wore on, though, I was amazed at how good the old guy with the grey hair was. I had no idea that he was actually playing in his 31st consecutive season of professional hockey. When I think about it now, I am absolutely amazed. Gordie Howe's story is a real life storybook for many Canadian kids. Throughout his career, he was an incredible ambassador for our country and an impeccable role model.
There are some honorable mentions to this list. Gordon Pinsent, Gordon's Canadian Gin, Gord Bamford, Gordon from Sesame Street and the Barenaked Ladies first album, Gordon all deserve mention (and perhaps further exploration).
Canada is a vast country full of inspirational people. For me, these three men represent so much of what is great about Canada. Do yourself a favor this Canada Day. Listen to a little Lightfoot, rock out to a lot of Hip and try your own version of a Gordie Howe Hat Trick - score a goal, help out and play hard. When you are done playing, drink some beer to celebrate your country and your accomplishments.
You'll be happy you did!