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COLUMN: Chanie Wenjack's story better known because of Gord Downie

Gord Downie is gone, but his message must remain with Canadians.
14-07,2021 D-WPhoto
The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Legacy space at RVH

Time doesn’t always change perspective enough, even when you want it to, even when it should.

Recently I wrote about the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), a safe place to pause and reflect on Indigenous history and reconciliation. (Click here to read that story)

Wenjack was an Anishinaabe boy who, in 1966 at age 12, ran away from a residential school in Kenora, Ontario attempting to reunite with his family, 600 kilometres away in Ogoki Post in Martens Falls Reserve, in northern Ontario. He died of starvation and exposure trying to get home.

Downie, of Tragically Hip fame, took up Wenjack’s cause 50 years later and helped tell his story in song, book and film, calling it the Secret Path. 

The Hip frontman did this while battling incurable brain cancer that took his life in November of 2017, but Downie stuck with the plight of Indigenous people until the end. And this was before hundreds of unmarked graves, many of them children, were found on or near Canada’s residential school sites.

I wrote about Downie’s 2017 death in a column, at the prompting of an editor, who rightly thought we should publish something written in-house to mark his passing.

What did I write about? Mostly what a great rock’n’roll band the Hip was, how much I liked their music, how they had a uniquely Canadian perspective in their songs and how Downie, despite being a distinctive voice and talented songwriter, was by no means greater than the sum of the Hip’s parts. And all true, I still believe.

But what did I write about the cause which consumed Downie until his death?

“His efforts on behalf of Canada’s Indigenous people should be lauded,” or words to that effect.

Well, that’s something I guess, but I didn’t exactly give Downie’s cause the weight it carried with him.

Almost four years later, I did a little better with the Downie-Wenjack legacy space story, giving a full account of Wenjack’s tragic life and what this RVH photo-poster of a Canadian rock star and an Indigenous boy could accomplish for those willing to take the time to consider its implications.

There were still  few paragraphs about the Hip and why they - and by extension Downie - still mattered musically to Canadians. And I tried to show that whatever differences there were between how Wenjack and Downie lived, their stories are still connected today.

Also that the Hip as they once were are no more, but hardly forgotten. Which is true, I think, and there’s some recent evidence of that.

At this year’s Juno Awards, the Hip were honoured with the 2021 Humanitarian Award and played one more song, maybe their last - It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, with their friend Leslie Feist handling lead vocals. It was a moving performance of a good song which still resonates.

The band also released some ‘new’ music lately, naming the compilation Saskadelphia - five songs left over from their Road Apples album in 1991, and one live track. This music was thought to have perished in a fire, but survived. And it sounded like the Hip, a breath of fresh air that local radio could use - but didn’t, that I can hear. 

The lasting image of Downie and the band - guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Simclair and Johnny Fay on drums - is at their last concert, in hometown Kingston, Ontario in the summer of 2016. The Hip played three hours for their fans, playing those great songs one more time, and to an audience of about one-third of all Canadians watching on TV.

And Downie even called out, politely, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the plight of Indigenous people and implored him to do something about it.

Downie shrewdly used his podium, the Hip’s legacy and fame, and the moment, to make his point to Trudeau, the highest elected official in the land.

Whether it will have much effect remains to be seen.

This country has been consumed by the pandemic for about 15 months now and we’re only starting to come out of it.

But what’s been found at the residential schools, and what more will be discovered, isn’t going away anytime soon.

Gord Downie is gone, but his message must remain with Canadians.

More of us need to call out those in positions of power to get to the bottom of this tragedy.

Bob Bruton covers city council for BarrieToday.


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Bob Bruton

About the Author: Bob Bruton

Bob Bruton is a full-time BarrieToday reporter who covers politics and city hall.
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