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Downie talks reconciliation with Comox Valley Schools staff

“This is a first-time event in that all district staff are participating.”
The film for Secret Path, with illustrations by Jeff Lemire, tells the story of Chanie Wenjack and informs the Downie-Wenjack Fund’s work. Image, Downie-Wenjack Fund

School District 71 staff will be bringing together all staff for the first time for the upcoming professional development day on Feb. 12.

Among the guests taking part will be Mike Downie of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, along with Indigenous leaders such as Chief Nicole Rempel of the K’omoks First Nation and hereditary Head Chief Wedlidi Speck G’ixsam Clan of the Kwakiutl proper. One aim is to look at the role schools play in supporting Indigenous people and culture.

“Our professional development is focusing on reconciliation,” superintendent Tom Demeo said.

RELATED STORY: Comox Valley Schools first district in Canada to sign all schools to Downie-Wenjack Fund School Legacy program

In 2019, the district became the first one in Canada to have all its schools sign on with Downie-Wenjack’s Legacy Schools program, which aims to “empower and connect students and educators to further reconciliation through awareness, education and action” while providing educational resources and program development for schools based around the interests, rights, and perspectives of Indigenous peoples across Canada.

At a recent board meeting, superintendent Tom Demeo was excited about the prospect of having staff from the district taking part in the conversation.

“This is a first-time event in that all district staff are participating,” he said.

Downie spoke to the Record about the importance of schools such as those in the Comox Valley working on ways to support reconciliation and Indigenous culture.

“We’re really excited about Comox Valley,” he said, adding he’s glad he will at least be able to join the discussion virtually.

Other schools around the country might be newer to the discussion, so the hope is to help the educators who are further along to continue their work but also help bring newer educators into the discussion.

“What we’re trying to do is create networks,” Downie said. “We’re trying to show them best practices…. This is happening and you should be a part of it.”

At present, the Fund has about 2,000 schools and teachers signed on.

The Downie-Wenjack Fund took off, Downie says, a few years back, particularly after his late brother Gord, lead singer for the Tragically Hip, started to speak about the story of Chanie Wenjack, imploring Canadians to “do something” during the band’s farewell tour.

“He had everyone’s attention,” he said.

Wenjack was a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who froze to death in 1966 while trying to make a 600-km walk back from a residential school in Ontario to his family’s home. It was Mike who first head the story on a radio documentary back in 2012. Then he started digging up what information he could find.

“That was the moment…. It just hit me over the head,” he said. “I didn’t know about the residential school system.”

Soon after, he told Gord about it during one of their regular lunches, passing his brother a copy of a magazine article from 1967 about Wenjack’s death.

“In that moment, we decided we’re going to try to figure out how to tell this story,” he said.

They soon approached Chanie’s sister Pearl and rest of the Wenjack family to get their blessing and help them tell the story.

Gord Downie’s Secret Path record helped tell the story, as did a film based on the record and a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire. Mike Downie says his brother was able to reach so many more Canadians with the story because of his audience and the trust they had in him, but the work of the Fund is to keep the conversation going into future—to learn about Wenjack and the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children sent to residential schools as well as to support Indigenous people and their culture in the hopes of forging a new relationship among all peoples in the country. For Downie, this story as well as his own entry into it can seem like a blur.

“Sometimes I still shake my head at the way that it all happened,” Downie added.

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Mike Downie of the Downie-Wenjack Fund will be speaking to all School District 71 staff as part of a reconciliation event for a professional development day. Photo, Downie-Wenjack Fund