Moving the Reconciliation Mission Forward
When Mike Downie first heard the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack—an Ojibway boy who died while running away from his residential school—it was like an arrow shot through his heart. Haunted, he shared the story with his brother, celebrated musician Gord Downie, and the two vowed to find a way to tell it to the world. The result was their multi-media project Secret Path, consisting of a music album and a graphic novel and film (with artist Jeff Lemire), that has captured the hearts and minds of Canadians.
Following his brother Gord’s tragic passing, Mike carries on with their mission. He spoke to Macleans about fighting for Indigenous rights and pushing ahead with the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. Here is part of the Q&A:
Q: Now that Gord has left us, what happens to the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund?
A: Now we get to work. Gord’s belief was that our country has a lot of work to do, and he believed that our national identity was ready for a real shakeup. I think we have fooled ourselves into believing we’re a young country when we’re not. We’re really a country that’s ignoring its deep past and 12,000 years of existence. The fund wants to inspire non-Indigenous Canadians to learn more about Indigenous lives and cultures. We want to be there to help make that happen. Gord inspired a lot of people to learn about the challenges facing Indigenous people, and we want to continue to inspire them to continue moving down the path toward reconciliation.
Q: We often see organizations directed at Indigenous people lacking representation from the community. How will Indigenous people be involved in the fund?
A: We started the fund with the Wenjack family, and they sit on the board. I had the idea for the fund over a year ago. I talked to Gord and told him that I think we can capture some of this energy around Secret Path. We now have a fund with an Indigenous program director and an Indigenous-led steering committee. Gord and I wanted that in the DNA of the organization right from the start. In Gord’s name, we have the ability to reach a lot of people. We want to provide opportunities for Indigenous leadership.
Q: What did reconciliation with Indigenous peoples mean to Gord?
A: It meant the truth. For the both of us, trying to understand the truth in what happened is a big, important first step. I think Secret Path helped with that—we really wanted Canadians to know one story from a residential school that represented the truth of a lot more stories. If there are three phases to reconciliation—awareness, education, action—I think it’s up to non-Indigenous Canada to first own up to what happened and as individuals to think about what we can do to make up for it.
Q: Last year, Gord was honoured with an Indigenous spiritual name, “Man Who Walks Among the Stars,” from the Assembly of First Nations and National Chief Perry Bellegarde. How much did that mean to him?
A: That meant a lot to Gord. He really took that to heart—he was so proud. It was just a beautiful moment, and to have that acceptance from the Indigenous community really meant a lot to both of us. For them to honour him that way—it was a great accomplishment.
Q: What do you hope the fund achieves in the future?
A: I hope the fund makes our country more inclusive and motivates people to explore a 12,000-year-old way of life. More importantly, I hope it helps make our country a place that our Indigenous brothers and sisters can be proud of.
The full interview can be found here.