British Columbia

Victoria Royals to pay tribute to Chanie Wenjack and Gord Downie

The Victoria Royals are honouring the legacy of residential school victim Chanie Wenjack and singer Gord Downie.

Just over a month since Gord Downie's death, his brother keeps legacy alive

'If this is the last thing I do, I'm very happy. This is what I want to do,' said Gord Downie during a Secret Path concert, which highlighted the story of Chanie Wenjack, whose death helped shed light on the grim reality of residential schools. (David Bastedo)

The Western Hockey League's Victoria Royals will to use its Friday game against the Seattle Thunderbirds as an opportunity to further the legacy of a Canadian icon.

It's been just under a year since the founding of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund.

The fund, which is meant to help aid Canada's reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people, is named after the late Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, and residential school victim Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 at age 12. 

Wenjack was an Ojibwe First Nations boy who ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in northern Ontario and died of hunger and exposure. His death helped shed light on the harms of the residential school system.

Downie died of glioblastoma on Oct. 17. 

Before he died, Downie co-created the graphic novel and animated film The Secret Path, which told Wenjack's story. Downie collaborated on that project with artist Jeff Lemire and his brother Mike Downie.

At Friday night's hockey game, a rink board promoting the fund will be showcased and a selection of merchandise will be sold, with all proceeds going toward the fund.

One of the items to be auctioned is a customized goalie mask by local artist Travis Michael which pays homage to Chanie Wenjack.

Mike Downie, who will be dropping the puck, said the hockey team reached out to fund officials a number of months ago.

"The [Victoria Royals] felt a real sense of connection. Gord started several tours in Victoria, at that rink in particular," said Mike Downie during CBC's On the Coast.

"I think they felt a real connection to Gord and wanted to get involved."

Mike Downie said his brother created the fund — along with the Wenjack family — to bring Canadians together.

Now, just over a month since his brother's death, Downie said he is trying to do his part to continue the legacy.

Emotion 'overwhelming'

"It's been such an outpouring of emotion," said Downie. "It's been overwhelming to see how much people cared about my brother."

Downie said if some of that emotion could be captured and directed towards his brother's cause — healing and reconciliation — it would bring his family joy.

He said he is heartened by the acknowledgement among Canadians of the need for reconciliation. And he is proud of the role his brother played in the nation's journey, especially when he took the stage in Kingston, Ont. in August 2016 for a final concert.

"With 15 million people watching and the Prime Minister sitting in the seats ... asking Canadians to 'consider a people we've been trained to ignore.' It was so Gord ... to say something like that," said Downie.

Downie said there's roughly 100,000 educators in Canada using The Secret Path as a tool to teach Indigenous history. He said the Downie and Wenjack Fund is being used to support those teachers provide the next generation with a greater understanding of Canada's past.

The Downie brothers were horrified by the story of Chanie Wenjack and set up the fund in collaboration with the Wenjack family. (David Bastedo)

Downie stressed the fund is meant to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together. Money raised goes to Canadian initiatives that further the cause of reconciliation.

"Reconciliation is in the hands of all of us," said Downie. "It requires everyone to move along that path individually ... if enough of us are doing that ... we can move forward."

With files from On the Coast