Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie’s legacy in promoting awareness for reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples is a hit in Catholic schools. Wikipedia

Rock star’s reconciliation legacy a hit

  • May 3, 2023

The legacies of late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack, an Anishnawbe boy who never came home from residential school, are helping to transform Catholic education for the better.

Since 2018, the Chanie Wenjack Fund has been providing tools and resources to educators across Canada to build cultural understanding and create paths toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Through various art projects, school initiatives and educational resources, the program is helping educators raise awareness about residential schools and to celebrate and acknowledge local Indigenous communities and lands. 

Currently there are over 7,200 educators and youth leaders across Canada participating in the Legacy Schools program, including more than 5,800 active schools, Catholic and otherwise, and clubs.

Born in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve on Jan. 19, 1954, in 1963, at the age of nine, Wenjack was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. In 1966, at 12-years-old, he ran away attempting to reunite with his family 600 kilometres away in Ogoki Post. His body was found beside the railway tracks on Oct. 22, 1966, a week after he fled.

Downie, who passed away in 2018, learned this story through Wenjack’s sisters Pearl and Daisy and was deeply moved to raise awareness. The families came together to create the fund in Wenjack’s memory.

In 2016, Downie asked all Canadians to look at the state of Indigenous-settler relations in this country and to “do something” to change them for the better. For his reconciliation efforts, Downie was given the Lakota Spirit Name Wicapi Omani, which translates as “Man who walks among the stars,”

Sarah Midanik,  president and CEO of the Downie Wenjack Fund, says the program’s fast-growing reach in just a short few years is due in large part to the efforts of schools like St. Bonaventure in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board, led by teacher Andrea Eby. The Grade 1/2 teacher acted as a liaison for the program within the school to bring classrooms on board and promote the importance of the reconciliation message.

Downie was a “truth teller,” said Midanik, who used his platform with the hugely popular Tragically Hip to shine a light on social justice for Canadians of all spiritual beliefs.

“As Christians or Catholics, Jewish people or Protestant, you name it, it really is about having that humility to look at the horrific injustices of the past and say, ‘What is our role to do better today?’ ” said Midanik. “How can we contribute to building a more equitable and just society and relationship with Indigenous peoples and communities today? I think the amount of Catholic schools that are participating in the Legacy Schools program is really representative of the hope and I would say heart forward work that needs to be done as we embark on this healing journey together.”

Now in her 18th year teaching and 16th at St. Bonaventure, Eby became aware of Wenjack’s story in the 2017-18 school year while teaching empathy as the virtue of the month, but felt her young students were struggling to truly understand what that meant.

In search for someone who could emulate the virtue of empathy for her students, she found the story of Downie, who passed away the following week, and his work with Indigenous peoples. Eby said she was blown away and discovered her role model for empathy.

The students were immediately taken with the story and Eby began investigating curriculum with board consultants. With her students she created a series of projects on anti-racist and anti-biased learning.

Since then, the entire school community has been built around Indigenous education, learning more and advocating to do the right thing. Most of that, Eby says, has been confirmed through the Downie Wenjack Fund.

The Secret Path is a 10-song album by Downie with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemieux that tells the story of Wenjack. Among St. Bonaventure’s many reconciliation projects, lessons and activities that take place throughout the year, on Orange Shirt Day, every class was given a song from the album and tasked with creating an interpretation of the lyrics. The lyrics were hung on a tree along with pieces of art created by students. The whole school enjoyed the project as an outdoor art walk.

The program’s place in Catholic education brings the residential school story in many ways full-circle, says Eby. So much of reconciliation is about doing the work to become aware and building meaningful connections with Indigenous communities.

Eby’s efforts and those of teachers, administration, parents and students has transformed the school culture to one that centres on awareness and healing all year long. This includes special projects highlighting truth and reconciliation day and activities for Catholic Education Week.

Eby is currently the only Catholic educator on the fund’s advisory board. The role and weight of responsibility of this position is not lost on her.

“I am very aware that I have a unique viewpoint, one that really is linked to my duty to serve as a Catholic educator in the wider community,” said Eby.

“I take back a lot of really tough questions and issues to the school and the school board and our wider community which is continuing. Although this started in 2017, as a virtue of the month on empathy, it really has become school-wide. We can all express empathy, but it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of unlearning.”

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