A tearful Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip, received an emotional showering of gifts from First Nations on Tuesday in what could be one of his last major public appearances.
The spiritual event was part of a Special Chiefs Assembly hosted by the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Que.
Downie, who is suffering from terminal cancer in his brain, has been a strong and popular advocate for Canada’s First Nations. He brought their struggle to the attention of the nearly 12 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Hip’s final concert that was televised this past summer.
Downie shared the stage with Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and other indigenous leaders. They gave him an eagle feather as a gift from the creator. He was then given an indigenous spirit name, 'Man Who Walks Among the Stars', before being presented with and swaddled in a star blanket.
The singer and activist fought back tears as he approached the microphone, but then calmly delivered a message about healing.
"Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there's 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country - to celebrate the next 150 years," said Downie.
"It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school, to become a country that can truly call ourselves Canada. It means we must become one. We must walk down the path of reconciliation from now on. Together and forevever. This is the first day of forever, the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives."
Downie recently released a solo project named Secret Path, telling the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.
He also shared a few words and a warm embrace with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also wiped away tears at the ceremony. The prime minister, who announced that his government would soon introduce new legislation to protect indigenous languages, said Downie embodies the desire of all Canadians for reconciliation.
Downie advanced reconciliation by many years through simple and elegant words, Trudeau said, citing the final Tragically Hip show in Kingston, Ont., where Downie highlighted the struggles among Canada's indigenous people.
"I heard Gord Downie that night in Kingston and with you honouring him here today, I know you heard him too," Trudeau said.
Downie embodies the desire of all Canadians for reconciliation, he added. "Just as your honouring him today was an act of reconciliation."
With files from Kristy Kirkup, the Canadian Press.