Most Canadian music fans of a certain generation hold at least a soft spot for The Tragically Hip and its famed frontman, Gord Downie.
For decades, they’ve been the go-to rock band for every plaid-clad, toque-toting northerner, deeply weaving themselves into our cultural fabric.
So, what a loss it was when Downie passed away five years ago, at age 53, from glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer.
His spirit was very much still alive at the sold-out Hip Heals benefit concert held Thursday in support of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation (ORCF). The evening was dedicated to honouring Downie and his music, which poignantly reminds us all: “No dress rehearsal, this is our life”.
The chair of the event’s organizing committee was Elliott Bourgeois, manager of the family wealth advisory group at Welch LLP. “For a young nation that was struggling to have an identity, I think Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip provided music that was truly Canadian for the entire nation,” he told OBJ.social.
Downie was also an important voice for indigenous and social justice issues, he added. “He was really a trailblazer in that respect.”
Fellow organizing committee member Andrea Timlin, who serves as the director of philanthropy for the ORCF, described The Tragically Hip’s music as “the soundtrack of our lives”.
“The Hip’s music is still so important to us and, certainly coming out of the pandemic, there’s just a real appetite to get out and to see each other and to celebrate live music and to celebrate Gord Downie’s memory.”
The benefit concert, which filled the Rainbow Bistro with a crowd of 165, had the backing of Ottawa-based Calian as its title sponsor. It’s led by president and CEO Kevin Ford, who, when he’s not busy running a half-a-billion-dollar-plus technology company, plays in a rock band and is a steadfast supporter of live music.
The evening was a way for Ford to support that passion while also focusing on a deadly disease that touches us all in some way.
Ford told OBJ.social in an email: “With the recent death from cancer of a good friend (and cousin) at 61 who fought for over three years, to staff at Calian who have been affected by cancer, and to those I know are fighting today, I wanted to celebrate the legacy of Gord Downie, to those we have lost, and to those fighting by having a night filled with amazing music and a chance to remember what is important in life – our health and the opportunity for the community to support each other.”
Ford was part of a group of business leaders who launched a grassroots campaign to resuscitate the Rainbow Bistro when it was looking like the live music venue, located in the ByWard Market, was going to permanently close during the pandemic.
ORCF’s partnership with Calian, a local business success story, is “such a great fit,” said Timlin. “They have such an amazing leader in Kevin Ford. He’s just such a champion of the cause and an amazing ambassador in our community.”
The concert was headlined by Toronto-based Tragically Hip tribute band Grace, 2. Because Downie was such a big supporter of new talent, the evening showcased young artist Ellie Richardson-Andrews, a 16-year-old student from Canterbury High School, and Ottawa-based alternative-folk musician Rory Taillon.
Ford later joined them on stage for a performance together of songs by the late John Prine, The Band and Pink Floyd.
The idea for Hip Heals came about four years ago but was forced to sit tight, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic eased off. There were many different pieces that first had to come together, from nailing down a venue to finding good musicians, said Bourgeois. “We thought, with the right energy, we could probably make this happen.”
Said Timlin: “I think it’s important to highlight that this event wouldn’t have happened without Elliott’s leadership. He took an idea from years ago that didn’t take off and made it a reality by assembling and chairing the organizing committee.”
Timlin made the crucial connection with Ford last June during a benefit concert for Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, at Overflow Brewing Company. He was performing that night with his band. Timlin was there to not only enjoy the music but, also, to make her pitch and see whether Ford, with whom she was already acquainted, was interested in supporting Hip Heals. “He was all over the idea,” Timlin recalled of that initial conversation.
The organizing committee also included Welch LLP director of business development Bruce Raganold, Marant Construction business development manager Jennifer Cross, Royal LePage Commercial Realty broker Jim Carty and lawyer Mariam Sarr from Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall.
It was Raganold — a true people-connector — who gave Timlin one of his extra tickets so that she could have that in-person contact with Ford at the June concert.
“It’s taken a lot of teamwork to make this happen,” said Timlin, while adding that many of the sponsors and volunteer committee members have had a brush with cancer through loved ones, friends and/or colleagues.
Nearly one in two Canadians will develop some form of the disease in their lifetime, and about one in four Canadians will die of cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Absent was ORCF president and CEO Michael Maidment. He flew back to his native province of Newfoundland just days earlier to lend support to his mother, who’d just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and was starting treatment.
Hip Heals was expected to raise more than $85,000. Proceeds will help fund innovation in local research and clinical trials and to deliver community-based, non-medical support through the ORCF’s new Ottawa Community Cancer Hub. Its new hub is a one-stop portal and referral point that connects individuals diagnosed with cancer, as well as their families and caregivers, to programs and services that best suit their needs.