As a Canadian, it’s easy to want to help Canada’s First Peoples but not know what to do about it. We know many Indigenous communities don’t have access to basic necessities. Clean water and higher education have become privileges. Moreover, we know that Canada’s past left a quake of shame, depression, poverty and white washing. What can we do?
Read on for Mike Downie’s answer and how the Downie Wenjack Fund is helping.
It’s easy to want to do something and be paralyzed. -Mike Downie
In the beginning…
In the beginning there was Chanie Wenjack. His story is simple, non-threatening and sad. Wenjack ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and tried to walk over 600 km back to his home in Ogoki Post. Sadly, he never made it.
When Wenjack died, writer Ian Adams wrote an article called “The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack” which was featured in Maclean’s Magazine. This article crossed Mike Downie’s desk years later when he heard about it on a podcast. The story immediately hit a nerve; why had Canadians been ignoring this for so long? Of course, Mike went to his brother, Gord Downie.
Gord’s answer was to write ten poems about Chanie’s story. Those poems turned into ten songs. Those songs turned into 2016’s Secret Path– an album, graphic novel (illustrations by Jeff Lemire) and thanks to Justin Stevenson, a film. Afterwards, this project was turned into three beautiful performances by Gord across the country.
Most importantly, the Downie brothers created something with a lasting impact. Alongside the creation of The Secret Path, the brothers worked to create the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, a grassroots initiative to better the lives of the Indigenous population across Canada and as Mike puts it, “help move people towards acts of reconciliation.”
The Downie Wenjack Fund Now
Talking with Mike on the phone, it was clear he’d done his research. The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund is something he’s passionate about spearheading to ensure longevity. This grass roots approach to reconciliation is here to stay.
So what does it mean? Of course, one of the first questions is where the money is going. According to Mike, the funds are largely directed to microgrants. These grants support grass roots initiatives started by Indigenous groups. Here are just a few examples:
Hockey Cares Team
This initiative brings bantam-aged hockey players from Indigenous communities together with teams in “southern Canada”. Indigenous players are exposed to new opportunities and focus is placed on finishing high school. Similarly, non-Indigenous kids get 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.
The idea behind the Legacy Rooms project is to Indigenize spaces from coast to coast as a physical reminder. In each room, the story of Gord and Chanie is told through signage. This reminds Canadians of the past but also of our goals for reconciliation. The rooms encourage conversations and learning. The site hosting a legacy room is also committed to a $5000 annual donation to the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.
The idea for the Legacy Rooms was put forward by Chief Morley Googoo, a regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Canada. It’s refreshing to see the fund is actively involving the community they are hoping to help in their efforts.
As the Gord Downie& Chanie Wenjack Fund continues to progress, Mike Downie says exciting things are in the works. For now, you can donate to the fund. In light of Gord Downie’s recent death, wouldn’t this be a fantastic way to honour his legacy? What will you do?