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Ian Arthur, MPP Kingston and the Islands

Government of Ontario

Supporting a poet laureate in memory of Gord Downie

Published on September 20, 2018

Today I spoke in support of creating a poet laureate in memory of Gord Downie.

Mr. Ian Arthur: I want to begin by thanking the member from Windsor–Tecumseh for bringing this bill forward. I am proud to stand here as a representative of Kingston and the Islands in support of an act to create a poet laureate for Ontario, and one that honours one of Kingston’s favourite sons, Gord Downie. Wheat Kings remains one of my most favourite songs.

Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip hold a special place in the hearts of many Canadians, but specifically Kingstonians. This was evident in their last show in Kingston, when people gathered from miles around to watch and take part in the collective experience of both sadness and joy.

We have a street called Tragically Hip Way. Many of my friends have had the luxury of recording their own music at the Tragically Hip’s recording studio in Bath, Ontario. On our beautiful waterfront there is a lovely newly renovated beach that we have named the Gord Downie Pier, where Kingstonians have enjoyed swimming and playing all summer long.

Paul and Joanne and Rob and Leslie were very frequent customers at the restaurant that I cooked at for so many years.

The Hip began as a group playing gigs at Clark Hall and other student bars on campus at Queen’s University, and 44 singles, 33 years, 13 studio albums and 16 Juno Awards later, the group is beloved around the country and is a touchstone for Canadian music.

If you ask anyone from Kingston who was able to see them in those early days, their shows have become the things of legend. Sometimes those shows would be just Gord, and they would take place on a porch in the neighbourhood that I now call home. I’ve heard similar stories from those who lived in Toronto when they used to play shows at the Horseshoe Tavern, with its checkerboard floors.”

Much of what made the Hip special are the lyrics that Gord Downie brought to their songs. As much as he was a musician, he brought the sensibility of a poet to his work. His lyrics have been described as touching upon specifically Canadian topics, but I feel that they are more universal than simply Canadian. Listening to a “voice cross a frozen lake,” seeing “the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time” or to be in a park on “one fine summer evening” when “the sun teased the dark” are things that we have all felt and loved. Lines of wisdom, such as “No dress rehearsal, this is our life” and to deal “with the consequences under pressure,” are delivered in a way that take old lessons and experiences and make them new.

We should also recognize the advocacy work Gord did throughout his life. I admire his commitment to environmental causes, such as his activism regarding water rights in Lake Ontario. His work as an advocate for reconciliation through the establishment of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund in 2016 touched Canadians across the land. His project about Chanie called Secret Path is very important and is a special act that ought to be recognized and acknowledged by all Canadians.

I also want to speak to the importance of poetry and the spoken word for Ontario. The vast reaches of land that is Ontario stretch from the Canadian Shield to “where the Great Plains begin.”

We must remember that the arts are an important way for us to share in the multitude of experiences from peoples of every facet of life. It is strange to say, but the arts are simultaneously a celebration of what makes us different but also what makes us the same. It is the use of words and sounds to bring us into the perspective of another, to feel that while we are not the speaker, we are closer to an understanding with them and our empathy has grown. As Scottish poet Dame Carol Ann Duffy wrote, “Poets sing our human music for us.”

The poetic history of Ontario is rich and diverse. I would not be a good representative without mentioning poets and spoken word artists who have either lived in or were born in Kingston, such as Winona Linn, Eric Folsom and Steve Heighton. You know you’re from a small town when you’re looking up poets and you play hockey with one of them. There are many, many more throughout the province, and they all make our lives richer: Al Purdy, Don McKay, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Lillian Allen and John McCrae, whose poem In Flanders Fields we recite each Remembrance Day. Of course, this is to name but a few.

The position of poet laureate is one that carries with it great prestige. I should also mention that the position exists at a federal level and at a provincial level, as has already been said, in Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and the Yukon, as well as in my own community of Kingston. It is one that honours both the work of all poetry and spoken word in Ontario and one that honours a single person. I believe it is one that the province should provide and that the province should honour with the name of Gord Downie.

In this time of great change, the arts should neither be ignored nor forgotten, because the arts, in the end, will not forget us.