A day after the world learned of Gord Downie's death, his brother Mike Downie says their collaboration on an ambitious project aimed at reconciliation has motivated him to keep pushing for improved conditions within Canada's Indigenous communities.
"He's my brother but he really inspired me, you know, he really inspired me to try to do something that could make a difference," a sombre Downie said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Thursday.
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Over the past few years, the Downie brothers worked together on Secret Path, a project inspired by Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died while escaping from a residential school in 1966.
The project spawned a concept album, graphic novel, animated film and a fund promoting reconciliation.
"There was a lot that Gord wanted to do in this last two years since the diagnosis," Downie said.
Asked if Gord entered his final days at peace with what he accomplished, his brother was certain.
"I think he really did feel that he had finished what he had set out to do," Downie said.
But it wasn't without help from Mike, who first introduced his brother to Wenjack's story, who died of exposure and hunger while trying to walk from his residential school in Kenora, Ont. to his home more than 600 km away.
While researching the project, the Downie brothers travelled to Ogoki Post, Ont., the destination that Wenjack never reached.
The brothers met with Wenjack's family, who today also voiced their gratitude for their work on bringing the story to a wider audience.
Joining Downie on Metro Morning, Wenjack's niece Harriet Visitor said that even she knew little about the harrowing details of her uncle's life, which have cast a shadow over her family for decades.
"Although it's been 51 years coming up this month, I didn't really hear a lot of him," she said from her home in Pickle Lake, Ont.
"It wasn't until that September when Gord came to Ogoki that I sat and listened to the stories of him," she said. "And so I was able to mourn. I was able to hear everything."
Honouring Gord's work
In the wake of Downie's death, Visitor said Secret Path and the Downies' work promoting reconciliation could be continued, if educators are willing.
She's calling on school boards across Canada to meet with Indigenous communities and residential school survivors to determine how the history should be taught.
"I think that's where we as educators can do something, it needs to start in our schools to carry his message that [Downie] started," she said.
That message could be amplified by sharing stories like Wenjack's, which had a profound impact on Gord and Mike Downie when they met with his family for the first time.
Mike Downie thought back on the conversation he shared with his brother after that initial meeting.
"I remember Gord saying —after meeting Harriet's aunts and Harriet and members of the family — that it felt like Chanie had been gone for 15 minutes and not 50 years," Downie said. "Just in the pain and how much they missed him."
Visitor reflected on a dream she had two weeks ago that has found her some solace on Downie's passing.
"Gord had come to look for me," she remembered. "And he told me that he would be moving, and that he was going to be OK, and I was going to be OK."
This Sunday, CBC TV will broadcast Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert on the 51st anniversary of Wenjack's death.