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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Bossy

Mike Downie on The Secret Path and The Downie Wenjack Fund

“It’s easy to want to do something and be paralyzed.”

Mike Downie says this to me on the phone. He’s referring to non-Indigenous Canadians and it’s a sentiment I can relate to immediately. We know that many of Canada’s Indigenous communities don’t have access to basic necessities like clean drinking water or higher education. We know that our haunting and shameful past has left a quake of depression, poverty and white-washing. What can we do? The Downie Wenjack Fund (a piece of Gord Downie’s Secret Path project), aims to give us something to do right now.

Photo by The Toronto Star

How it Started

The story of Chanie Wenjack is simple, sad and non-threatening: a boy who ran away from a horrible residential school to try and find home. He tried to walk 600km back through the Canadian wilderness to his home in Ogoki Post. Of course, he never made it. It’s a story that draws you in, that takes you away from the shear, indigestible numbers of residential school deaths. It’s human.

When Ian Adam’s 1967 article, The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack, crossed the path of Mike Downie who heard about it on a radio documentary several years later, it hit a nerve. Why had this story been ignored and what is being done about the current state of Canada’s Indigenous affairs now?

Of course, Mike went to his brother Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip about it. Gord wrote ten poems which turned into songs and eventually his late work “The Secret Path”. Teaming up with artist Jeff Lemire, an emotional and visually stunning graphic novel was made in (almost) exclusively whites, blacks and blues. The three Downie brothers visited Wenjack’s family in Agoki Post and then the project evolved. The Secret Path was also turned into a film thanks to Justin Stevenson and Gord hit the road for three beautiful performances.

Artwork by Jeff Lemire

Gord Downie performing an evening of all ten songs from “Secret Path” in front of the animated film. Photo c/o The Toronto Star.

The most important part of this all however, was the lasting impact. Alongside the creation of “The Secret Path” the Downie brothers worked to establish the Downie Wenjack Fund, a grass roots initiative to better the lives of the Indigenous population in Canada and as Mike puts it, “help move people towards acts of reconciliation”.

What It Is

As I talked with Mike Downie on the phone, it was clear he had done his research and the Downie Wenjack Fund is a project he is passionate about spearheading to ensure its longevity. The Downie Wenjack Fund is committed to tackling a grass roots approach to Indigenous reconciliation.

So what does that mean? Well of course, the first question I asked was where the money was going. According to Mike, the funds are largely directed to microgrants to support said grass roots projects, projects started by Indigenous groups. Upon a little research I have a couple of examples:

• Hockey Cares Team: This initiative brings bantam-aged hockey players from Indigenous communities together with teams in “southern Canada” to expose them to new opportunities and also to show them the value of a high school education. In turn, non-Indigenous kids receive exposure to a new culture and learn a great deal about First Peoples. In its first year, Hockey Cares partnered players from Attawapiskat with players from Oakville.

Photo c/o the Hockey Cares Facebook Page.

• Legacy Rooms: Indigenizing spaces from coast to coast, the idea behind a Legacy Room is to not only remind Canadians of their dark and sordid history but also to work on bringing Indigenous culture into public consciousness and to act as a physical reminder towards goals of reconciliation. It encourages conversations and learning. These spaces tell the story of Downie and Wenjack’s legacies, are often inaugurated through Indigenous ceremonies and act as a safe space. Additionally, the site hosting the legacy room is committed to donating $5000 annually to the Downie Wenjack Fund- a significant resource for the group. The idea for legacy rooms was actually started by Chief Morley Googoo, a regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Canada. The piece that impressed me here was the organization’s recognition that ideas should come from the Indigenous communities in our country, that they should take the lead in showing how to make their lives better and in showing how to bring us together as a country.

Mike Downie announcing five Halifax Legacy Rooms beside Pearl Wenjack and Chief Morley Googoo. Photo c/o Andrew Vaughn, The Canadian Press

Where It's Going

As the Downie Wenjack Fund continues to progress, Mike Downie says there are exciting things in the work, more to come. For now, you can donate to the fund here and don’t miss out on a special airing of The Secret Path Toronto show on CBC at 9pm tonight. In light of Gord Downie’s death, this cause would not only be a fantastic way to honour him, it’s an important way to honour the growth of our country and to create new relationships with the First Peoples of Canada. What will you do?

Peace, love & history.

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