Although they no longer live, Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack have left a lasting legacy through a fund that is committed to helping bridge the gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
Gord Downie, who was lead singer of the musical group,The Tragically Hip, said that “Generations grew up not hearing about what’s happening in the North and in Indigenous communities everywhere … the next generation can’t be raised the say way.”
Chanie Wenjack was a young boy who died in October, 1966 while trying to walk home along the railroad tracks following his escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. Downie was so touched by the boy’s story that he created ‘The Secret Path‘ album, novel and animated film around him and traveled north to meet his family.
Today, the Downie-Wenjack fund is located in Toronto, with Indigenous people making up the majority of its Board of Directors, and administers programs and initiatives working toward Reconciliation. One of the initiatives is the Legacy Schools program in Canada that encourages educators to engage in reconciliation. The program provides educational resources and program development to a Legacy School to ensure the interests, rights and perspectives of Indigenous peoples are implemented.
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On Tuesday, June 18th, it was announced that G.C. Huston Public School in Southampton has become a Legacy School joining 800 others to date across Canada. Two representatives Lisa Prinn, Manager of Education and Activities and Audra Santa, Manager of Strategies and Partnerships, paid a visit to G. C. Huston for the announcement and experienced a school assembly that included the unveiling of two new student-painted classroom doors, a drumming selection and a presentation of a special medallion by Gord Boyd of Southampton.
The doors are the latest creations by students that follow the Indigenous seven ‘grandfather’ teachings and values. The recent doors are centred round music and drumming and will lead the way into the school’s music room.
Gord Boyd, a resident of Southampton, also presented a medallion to the school that features a First Nations symbol. “I first saw this symbol on a canoe at the Royal Ontario Museum,” said Boyd. “This particular one was actually on an historic house here in Southampton that was built by Captain McLeod who came from Scotland and established the first and largest fishing company on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. He worked extensively with Saugeen First Nation fishermen and incorporated this symbol in his home. We don’t know how old the design is but I suspect it is thousands of years old.”
Ojibway teacher, Marilyn Root, said that design is, in fact, incorporated in many of the bead works created by Saugeen First Nation. “It is a flower design but we think it also represents the four directions of the medicine wheel.”
Prinn and Santa were then given a tour of the school that features not only the classroom doors but also large Indigenous murals that adorn walls. The two women also toured the dome outdoor classroom, complete with fire-pit and said that they had never seen anything like it. “The move toward Indigenous culture in this school is incredible,” they said.
Principal Hugh Morrison, who was a former student and then a teacher at G. C. Huston school, said that every student in the school is learning about Indigenous culture. “It’s a process and we have a long way to go but we, at G. C. Huston, are proud that we have taken these steps.”
The school also observes ‘Orange Shirt Day’ in September in the spirit of Reconciliation and, from October 17th – 22nd, it will be Downie-Wenjack week.
From the school, the Downie-Wenjack representatives went on to tour the Bruce County Museum’s First Nations Anishnaabwe Gallery. Museum Executive Director Cathy McGirr explained that the Gallery had recently been completely re-designed in collaboration with Saugeen Ojibway First Nation and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. “We did not want the Museum to take the lead on this but, instead, wanted it to be a partnership with complete input by our Indigenous peoples. This is only the beginning of what we expect will be a long and on-going collaboration.”