I am sitting by the fireplace at the National Water Centre with a group of recreational water quality data experts. The red and gold and green fall leaves are lit up by sunlight outside. Between their branches, I can see the Kennebecasis River flowing by.
Head jerk. Eyes looking at mine. A gesture to leave the room.
“Gord’s gone,” I am told.
This is it. This is the moment that we all knew was coming.
The sadness is indescribable.
Gord wasn’t just a board member. He wasn’t just a celebrity spokesperson who gave his name to the Swim Drink Fish cause. His ideas, passion, and creative drive are part of the DNA of our movement.
When Waterkeeper toured with The Tragically Hip on the In Between Evolution tour, we were barely an organization. Yet we - mostly Mark - made it all the way across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We didn’t miss a show.
That’s how we learned that the first rule of organizing is that you have to show up. The opportunity to take a long journey, to test our ability, to call upon friends and family to help us introduce “swimmable, drinkable, fishable water” to the entire country … Gord gave us that.
And in the process of touring, we saw first-hand how Canadian cities and transit routes are intimately connected to Canada’s waterways. We saw first-hand how ordinary concert-goers can be caught up by the desire for a better country. We saw how our common love for water unites otherwise distinct communities. Gord gave us that.
We saw what his band - The Tragically Hip - and bandmates meant to him. Gord took the idea of “band” and collaboration very seriously. He taught us the true meaning of teamwork. That’s an incredible gift.
Eleven years ago - almost exactly - Gord and Mark collaborated with dancer Andrea Nann and poet Tanis Rideout to present the “Heart of a Lake” Tour. With song, movement, and spoken word, they went into the heart of Lake Ontario’s most polluted communities. The shows were intimate and touching. They inspired communities to dream big and to imagine better futures for themselves. They were life-changing evenings for all of us. Gord gave us that.
Watching Gord was watching a master at work, and I had a front row seat. I wish everyone could see how Gord approached a show or a performance. His deep commitment to water and to justice made him relentless in his quest to do the best work possible. Every story had to be the best story. Every word had to be the right word. Buffalo Jump - a masterpiece - went through almost 20 drafts. The original script was almost 100 pages long.
With Gord, hard-to-express values and beliefs came to life. “This lake is our lake,” he would say. And in those five words he somehow managed to convey everything we stand for. Everything we desire.
When he shared his Watermark story at our gala in 2015, Gord agonized over which story to tell. I’d wake up every morning the week of the event, check my email, and find another story waiting for me. Every day. Until he hit the right one. It was never about making the popular choice or getting the applause line; it was always about digging deeper to find the truth, no matter how painful or awkward or raw. Work hard. Speak what you know. Find the truth. Gord taught us that.
“Why would they care what the rock star thinks?” Gord would sometimes say, cynically. “I’m not an expert.” He expressed the exact same concern that almost every citizen in the history of social change has ever expressed. Most of us don’t start out as experts. We’re just people with a concern and a willingness to ask questions. Gord, too, had to come to the realization that he was a citizen of his lake, that he needed no one’s permission to care or to speak for it. That confidence didn’t come to him naturally. The fear never really went away. But he showed up. Be afraid, but have courage.
When the Gord Edgar Downie Pier opens next year in Kingston, we will have a piece of the world - an exact place where land meets water - where we can remember him. By lending his name to a Pier funded by Waterkeeper and built in our shared birthplace, Gord helped us yet again to do what we are meant to do: connect people to water.
Every formative moment in the history of the Swim Drink Fish movement has a piece of Gord in it. Every program we run, every case we fight, every speech we give is influenced by his mentorship and insight. Even more than that, people and organizations across the country and around the world who advocate for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water are all touched by his vision. The movement continues to grow. That’s part of his legacy.
When I heard the news today, the loss engulfed me.
But there’s another feeling there, too. A sense of appreciation. Of gratitude.
The opportunity to spend time with Gord - to watch and collaborate in the building of a powerful movement for real social change - was life changing. I was invited into his “band” of scrappy artists and activists conspiring to change the world. We learned so much. We laughed so hard. We dreamt so freakin’ big.
As I sit here, under his portrait at the National Water Centre, all I can think is this: It is an honour to feel this sad.