Mike Downie once told the story of how his brother Gord reacted to hearing about Canada’s shame-filled history of mandated residential schools for its Indigenous people. After some thought, he said, Gord told him he wrote a poem.
By just putting pen to paper, he had envisioned a way to engage his fellow Canadians in a story that badly needed to be told. From that humble verse about young boy Chanie Wenjack’s effort to walk home, Downie ultimately released a series of songs, inspired a novel. and created a foundation that has brought awareness to thousands and a push for change.
With Downie’s passing last week after his battle with brain cancer, Canadians mourned a gifted storyteller who used his abilities to improve many lives around him still offering a sense of entertainment and release.
While the loss of the affable Downie leaves a hole in this community — where he spent considerable time and is warmly remembered by many for his down-to-earth humanity — and across the country that will never be replaced, the outpouring in the wake of his death underscores an important lesson that is worthy of considering time and again.
This world needs artists. By a simple turn of phrase, a deft movement of their limbs, or a broad brush stroke, they can make an immediate impact on their audiences. Often, their work brings forward emotion and provokes thought. If given an opportunity, they can shape the social fabric.
That influence speaks for itself when discussions arise about the value of promoting the arts. The numbers also offer support. The Ontario Arts Council suggests the province’s cultural sector was directly responsible for a direct contribution of $27.7 billion annually to its economy and it directly employs over 300,000 people annually — and that’s not counting the impact of volunteer contributors. When one thinks about the spin-off benefits for food and hospitality providers, the arts leave an even greater footprint on society.
Needless to say, it’s important to raise the profile of the arts and to offer budding artists financial and moral support so that they can continue to make a direct and indirect impact on those around them from day-to-day.
There are doubtless those who remember The Tragically Hip when they first started on the circuit playing local halls and dances in eastern Ontario. Those audiences that watched, nurtured, and even constructively criticized the band then offered them something they needed as they built the sound and message that vaulted them to a treasured position in the national spotlight.
Somewhere within driving distance, this weekend other artists are getting set to take the stage or hit the studio. They’re ready to share their message and make their mark. It’ll be a tough road to travel, but with encouragement, perhaps they’ll find their voice too. Who knows what they might be able to do one day and who they might reach.