News / Halifax

Two families, one legacy: Gord Downie honours Chanie Wenjack during Halifax stop

Tragically Hip lead singer, who is battling terminal cancer, in city for solo-show performance.

Pearl Achneeponeskum, centre, sister of Chanie Wenjack, is flanked by local chief Morley Googoo, left, and Mike Downie during an announcement for the The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund Legacy Project at the Rebecca Cohn Tuesday.

Jeff Harper / Metro

Pearl Achneeponeskum, centre, sister of Chanie Wenjack, is flanked by local chief Morley Googoo, left, and Mike Downie during an announcement for the The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund Legacy Project at the Rebecca Cohn Tuesday.

Members of two historic Canadian families flanked either side of the podium in Halifax – one, the brother of a music legend battling terminal brain cancer; the other, the sister of 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died after running away from a residential school.

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund has woven these two legacies together, co-founder Mike Downie told reporters at the Dalhousie Arts Centre hours before his enigmatic brother, Gord, would take the stage in one of his first solo performances since The Tragically Hip’s farewell tour.

The “Secret Path” concert is inspired by the life of Chanie Wenjack, mispronounced as “Charlie’ by his teachers at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, who died in 1966 while trying to walk back home from the facility some 650 kilometres away.

“I think we were taken with Chanie’s simple story of trying to get home,” Mike Downey said. “It never let Gord go. It never let me go. Every step along the way, and it was not a very direct path, we were just more committed to finding a way to get the story told.”

The brothers’ project – which consists of a 10-song album, a graphic novel and an animated film – has been in the work for four years, said Mike Downie, after reading a Maclean’s story from 1967, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.”

Mike Downie said he and Gord, in film and song respectively, have dedicated their lives to telling stories about Canada, and yet, neither knew anything about this “enormous national tragedy.”

“I’m here to tell you all that it’s not a story, that it did happen,” said Pearl Wenjack, wearing a T-shirt with Chanie’s picture. “I had wanted to do something about my brother since that day he died.”

For 50 years, Pearl Wenjack has been trying to raise national awareness about Chanie’s death. She considered calling Oprah Winfrey, but said after three attempts, she gave up because “isn’t very good at computers.”

When Mike Downie called to introduce himself, Pearl Wenjack said her initial response was “So?”

In the years since, Pearl Wenjack said she and the Downies have become her “family,” bonded by shared tragedy. Knowing that Gord Downie was sick, she said they prayed together.

“It brings two different kinds of people together,” she said. “Somebody that’s nationally known, and somebody that just lives in the bush.”

Her voice cracking, Pearl Wenjack said she was grateful for all the people who have helped share Chanie’s story, and blessed with a lot of “good white brothers.” 

Halifax restaurant one of first to join Legacy Room Project

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund’s Legacy Room Project will be a testament to the efforts of two families – one white, one Ojibwe – towards reconciliation between Canada and its aboriginal population, Mike Downie said Tuesday.

Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Morley Googoo said the campaign calls on businesses in Canada, especially in the hospitality industry, to dedicate rooms in restaurants in honour of the Tragically Hip frontman and Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died in 1999 while fleeing from a residential school in northwestern Ontario.

By signing on, Googoo said, restaurants also commit to an annual donation to the fund that aims to recognize and heal the wounds Canada’s aboriginal peoples have suffered, particularly in the residential school system.

“The campaign will be an opportunity for Canada corporate to propel the legacy of a special relationship between Gord and Chanie,” Googoo told reporters. “In these rooms, those stories need to be told.”

Googoo said many of Canada’s corporations don’t know “what their part is” in the path towards truth and reconciliations. He said the purpose of the initiative is to create a space where those discussions can begin.

Gord Downie’s brother, Mike, said he thinks the project has enormous potential, and will be a “physical reminder” of the legendary singer’s commitment to Chanie’s story, which inspired his solo performance in Halifax Tuesday.

The Barrington Street Steakhouse is the first partner in the project, Googoo said, which aims to sign up 100 restaurants.

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