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Downie-Wenjack legacy space takes shape at Barrie hospital (VIDEO)

'There are historical traumas that are essentially still being lived out in our communities,' says Dr. Matthew Follwell

Dr. Matthew Follwell has helped bring education and awareness of Indigenous issues to Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH).

RVH’s chief of oncology championed the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space, a safe place to pause and reflect on Indigenous history and reconciliation. RVH is the first public health-care setting in Canada to take part in this initiative.

“It’s more hopefully acting as a welcoming symbol, something that can put people at least at ease that we’ve acknowledged that these things happened, and there are historical traumas that are essentially still being lived out in our communities,” Follwell, a radiation oncologist, said of Canada’s residential school system.

“We have a long way to go,” he added. “If this can be a way to break down some of those barriers, then at least let them (Indigenous people) feel welcome in our building.”

The legacy space is located in RVH’s main lobby, near Café Royale, and currently consists of a large photo-poster, essentially Downie and Wenjack. There will also be literature, books and handouts, once the pandemic eases.

“Within the hospital itself, I think it’s going to serve as an education tool… where people can contemplate and be able to learn,” Follwell said. 

The photo-poster in the legacy space tells Wenjack’s story.

Chanie Wenjack was an Anishinaabe boy who, in 1963 at age nine, was sent to Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. In 1966, at age 12, Chanie ran away from the school, attempting to reunite with his family, 600 kilometres away in Ogoki Post in Martens Falls Reserve, in northern Ontario.

Chanie’s body was found beside railway tracks on Oct. 22, 1966, a week after he fled. He had died of starvation and exposure.

Downie was the lead singer, lyricist and collaborative songwriter with The Tragically Hip, arguably Canada’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band for more than 30 years. His voice was an integral part of The Hip’s two-guitar, bass and drums sound that was music to the ears of Canadians from coast-to-coast.

Downie died at age 53 in October 2017 from an aggressive, incurable form of brain cancer, disclosed after a seizure in December 2015.

Between these dates, The Hip played a final Canadian concert tour in the summer of 2016 and Downie pushed Indigenous causes to the forefront, even imploring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make them a priority. 

He also produced the Secret Path from Chanie Wenjack’s story  as an animated film, a music album and Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel.

Downie was honoured for his work on Indigenous causes by the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs.

“I kind of followed what he’d done in the past couple of years of his life,” Follwell said of Downie, noting he grew up near Indigenous territory in the Belleville area, playing hockey and lacrosse with mainly Indigenous kids. “So it’s always been pretty close to what I kind of do and live.”

Follwell said he saw the need at RVH’s cancer centre, where some self-identification was developed.

“Meaning people are asked if they identify as any of the Indigenous groups, and we essentially tried to connect them with the (Indigenous) navigator within the cancer centre and that’s essentially where it started, in terms of what else we could do to try and engage our local communities, and at the same time bring some awareness to the residential school system,” he said.

The remains of 215 children were found at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia, 751 unmarked graves were found at a former Saskatchewan residential school and the remains of 182 people in unmarked graves were found at a site close to a former residential school in the southern interior of B.C.

In late 2019, Follwell contacted the Downie-Wenjack fund asking to be part of the program. He met with RVH’s patient family advisory council with the diversity and inclusion committee, which is part of the representation for Indigenous groups in the hospital.

But COVID-19 hit and everything was put on hold until mid-summer 2020, when the process began again  including meeting with the North Simcoe Muskoka Indigenous Health Circle and senior leadership at RVH.

Approval came from Downie-Wenjack fund last December. It asked for $25,000 during a five-year period. 

Follwell said his family and several other physicians that he knew were supportive raised all of the money.

The formal celebration of the legacy space will be in October, when Secret Path Week takes place. It recognizes the passing of Wenjack and Downie.

“We hope to have Indigenous groups in to celebrate with us,” Follwell said.

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund aims to build cultural understanding and create a path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The goal is to improve the lives of Indigenous people by building awareness, education and connections between all Canadians. 

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