OTTAWA â€” Gord Downie didn’t attend Saturday’s Juno Awards gala celebration to pick up his awards, but his presence was still deeply felt.
The Tragically Hip frontman was linked to three Juno wins at the celebration of Canada’s music industry held at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre. One was shared with his band while the other two came from his “Secret Path” album.
The solo multimedia project grabbed both adult alternative album and recording package of the year. The Hip went home with the rock album award for “Man Machine Poem.” Downie, who revealed last year he’s been diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer, was not expected to attend.
The evening also saw Drake â€” another no show â€” lose artist of the year to Leonard Cohen and get trampled in the rap category by Toronto performer Jazz Cartier.
Hip guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langois were on hand but steered clear of talking about their bandmate when claiming their prize.
“To our fellow nominees, sorry puppies, this dog’s still hungry, so move over,” Baker told the audience to laughter.
Others were more open to discussing Downie’s impact on Canadian culture, including indigenous singer Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The performer and activist, who was honoured with the Humanitarian Award, said Downie’s “Secret Path” project was an effective way of exposing the sad story of Chanie Wenjack to a new audience.
“It reached an awful lot of people with a message that may have been new to them,” Sainte-Marie said.
“I think it was different coming from him than maybe coming from me.”
“Secret Path” also won recording package of the year for its presentation of the story of 12-year-old Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school. Downie wrote the songs which were released alongside a graphic novel and CBC-TV special.
Jonathan Shedletzky, who was art director on the visual project, said he hopes the album’s introduction into the education system helps it resonate with even more listeners.
“It’s amazing to see the life it takes on of its own accord,” he said.
“We hope it’s passed around for generations, like Gord wanted, for seven generations in order to reverse the harm that we’ve done in this country.”
Leonard Cohen’s son Adam stepped in to receive his father’s posthumous artist of the year honour. Montreal’s poetic songwriter won artist of the year over a batch of younger pop stars that included Alessia Cara, Drake, Shawn Mendes and the Weeknd.
While accepting the award, Adam poked fun at his father’s absence. Cohen died last November.
“Many international artists find excuses to not participate in the Junos,” he said.
“I think he’s found the best one yet.”
Backstage Adam reflected on what the award meant.
“I feel that people are kind of consoling themselves â€” and consoling me â€” by giving this award to my father,” he said.
“One of the chief defining characteristics of the guy was how hard he worked.”
One of the evening’s lighter moments had Simon Ward, a member of the Strumbellas, caught off guard â€” and without his boots â€” when the band won single of the year for their rousing hit “Spirits.”
After slipping off his new boots for the evening, convinced that either Drake or the Weeknd would take the prize, Ward was unprepared to put them back on before heading to the stage.
They “take a long time to tie up,” he reasoned, as he paraded around in a pair of black socks.
Keyboardist Dave Ritter offered his own philosophy on the surprise win.
“What we’ve heard is if you beat Drake, you become Drake,” he said.
“So we’re pretty excited about the next phase of our career.”
Other winners included July Talk, who scored alternative album for “Touch,” and Kaytranada whose “99.9%” snapped up the electronic album Juno after winning the Polaris Music Prize last year.
The attention “99.9%” has garnered Kaytranada over this past year has elevated him to a new status. He recently collaborated with Mary J. Blige on her next album, and he says he’s also talking with Erykah Badu about working on something together.
“I send beats,” he says. “It’s up to her to do something with (them, but) â€¦ she Facetimed me so it was awesome.”
Jazz singer Diana Panton, who moonlights as a Hamilton school teacher, won children’s album honours, while Toronto’s Jazz Cartier won rap recording.
Sunday night’s main event will hand out the remaining awards, including album, group and breakthrough artist as well as country album of the year.
Viewers can also vote for the Juno Fan Choice Award on the Juno website.
The show airs on CTV and streams through the CTV website.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press