The 2021 Humanitarian Award recipients: The Tragically Hip
The Tragically Hip, winners of 15 JUNO awards over their 37-year history, including a Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction, will add another lifetime achievement honour to their trophy collection, the 2021 Humanitarian Award, Presented by Music Canada.
“If you have a platform and people interested in your music, it’s easy to give to charity; it’s a no-brainer,” says guitarist Paul Langlois. “Deciding on the charities can be a bit of a difficult conversation for a hyper democratic band, where we prefer consensus to majority, but we were always on the same page — kids, sick kids.”
Over the decades, the rock band, whose album sales have topped 10 million copies worldwide, has raised millions of dollars for various causes, such as Camp Trillium, the University Hospitals Kingston Foundation, Unison Benevolent Fund, Waterkeeper Alliance, War Child and the Special Olympics. The band’s final tour in 2016 brought in $1 million for The Canadian Cancer Society and the Sunnybrook Foundation.
Frontman, Gord Downie passed away in October 2017 of brain cancer.
“Gord believed in community and was a tireless supporter of social and environmental justice; this recognition is as much about his values as the group’s. He would have been pleased,” says bassist Gord Sinclair. “We’re honoured to share this recognition on the 50th anniversary of an event that celebrates Canadian music and our domestic music industry.”
Since forming in 1984, The Tragically Hip — rounded out by guitarist Rob Baker and drummer Johnny Fay — played charity gigs almost out of the gate in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. “I remember at a local club The Manor, they would raise money with some regularity, usually for the foodbank, and we would be one of many bands on the bill,” recalls Langlois. “It was before we were making any money, but we were always happy to play them. We played for charity only in Kingston for 15 years, at least. And it wasn’t not fun, ever, to play a show, whether you get paid or not.”
The bigger The Hip got, the more opportunities came their way, which meant more money could be raised for chosen charities.
“I remember our first bigger one was  for the nurses at Kingston General Hospital,” Langlois says. “We played at Fort Henry. Up To Here had just come out. We had a close association with the hospital. Johnny’s dad was a cardiologist, and Gord Sinclair’s dad was dean of medicine at Queens [University] and very involved with the hospitals, and there was a need for money; there always is for hospitals. I think it raised $130,000.” (The band surpassed that figure in 1993, raising $180,000 from a local show at Richardson Stadium for Healthcare 2000, benefitting area hospitals.)
In 2000 came The Hip’s biggest benefit concert of their career for 100,000 people — it held the record at the time for Canada’s largest outdoor performance — which the band co-produced and headlined at The Forks in Winnipeg. The free War Child event brought awareness to issues on the agenda at the International Conference on War Affected Children and raised $400,000.
The following year, about a month after 9/11, The Hip helped raise over $1.2 million with Music Without Borders, a concert from Toronto’s Air Canada Centre televised on CBC and MuchMusic to raise funds for Afghan refugees, via War Child and United Nations agencies.
In 2004, almost two decades into their career as a band, and with 10 top-selling releases to their name — including three rare diamond records (1 million sales) for 1989’s Up To Here, 1991’s Road Apples, and 1992’s Fully Completely — and many causes the recipients of their fundraising efforts, the five-piece created The Tragically Hip Community Fund in order to target charities in their hometown. “We’re always informed as to where the money is going. It’s for anyone in need. It’s a little similar to the United Way, where they send the money to a variety of places,” explains Langlois.
Of course, Langlois, Fay, Baker and Sinclair have their own charities they support, sometimes quietly, sometimes not. Downie had his own too, becoming quite active and visible in Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, as a supporter and board member. As the face of The Hip, that often meant the band’s involvement. “With four guys totally willing to educate ourselves and keep up, that’s what we did over time,” says Langlois. “We’re all individuals and charity is very personal, so I feel we were successful just being on the same page and choosing each time,” he laughs.
During The Hip’s final national tour, Downie used their enormous spotlight to bring an important blight to the attention of Canadians, the country’s systemic mistreatment of “the people way up north that we were trained our entire lives to ignore,” as the singer put it when he addressed Prime Minister Trudeau during their televised concert finale in Kingston.
“That’s one of his biggest accomplishments,” reflects Langlois. “Knowing him as a kid, that really bothered him about the country and he knew it needed to change. He always had it in his head and was able to conceive of a way to get a message across in the end. It was super ambitious. We all were very happy for him because it was a dream of his to bring some awareness.”
Before his passing, Downie released his solo project Secret Path about the frozen death of a 12-year-old boy when he escaped from a residential school in the 60s, and started the Gord Downie-Chanie Wenjack Fund to help bring reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. The entire band was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017 in recognition of outstanding Indigenous leadership. Downie’s brother Mike continues to expand the work of the Fund.
Most recently, The Hip has been selling “Courage” masks — named after their hit from Fully Completely — with proceeds going to Unison, an emergency relief organization for musicians and members of the Canadian music industry in need of financial aid or counselling services. They donated $50,000 earlier in the year.
“Unison is certainly important. We’ve had a long career and we’ve seen crew and band people all of a sudden struggling, whether it’s a health issue or lack of work. And that’s what’s going on right now,” Langlois says in reference to the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on live touring and venues.
The band is currently selling a three-ply “Courage” mask and packs of sweet Italian basil seeds with proceeds continuing to go to Unison.
Featured: The Tragically Hip appear in the media room at The 1991 JUNO Awards after winning Canadian Entertainer of the Year. Credit: Barry Roden.