Nova Scotia

Gord Downie's Secret Path leads to legacy project in honour of Chanie Wenjack

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund legacy project is a partnership with the Assembly of First Nations that follows the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action. It wants to create new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Downie performed the Secret Path in Halifax at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium to a sold-out crowd of 1,023

Gord Downie's Secret Path project includes an album and a graphic novel honouring Chanie Wenjack. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

As Gord Downie prepared to take the stage in Halifax for his sold-out Secret Path show Tuesday night, his brother, Mike Downie, announced a spinoff project to establish so-called legacy rooms in restaurants and public spaces across the country. 

Businesses are being asked to dedicate rooms or spaces to promote the discussion and understanding of Indigenous issues in response to calls of actions stemming from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Chanie Wenjack was a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school 50 years ago. (Jeff Lemire/Secret Path)

Participating businesses would donate a percentage of sales for the year to the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund and hold events in the dedicated space.

 "It will be a physical reminder of this story, of Chanie, of Gord's commitment to the story," said Mike Downie, a filmmaker. "This is a great example of reconciliation." 

The project is being kicked off in Halifax with hopes it will gain traction and spread across the country. Already, the Barrington Steakhouse & Oyster Bar in the city's downtown core has signed on.

The idea was the brainchild of Morley Googoo, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He said the national advocacy groups hopes to sign up 100 businesses in Halifax in the next six months. 

"In those rooms, those stories need to continue to be told," said Googoo. "Reconciliation comes in many, many forms, and a lot of corporate Canada doesn't know what their part is."

Pearl Wenjack, Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Morley Googoo, and Mike Downie, left to right, announce the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund legacy project in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Legacy Room project is part of Gord Downie's Secret Path initiative, an animated film with poems and music. The solo project by the Tragically Hip frontman tells the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.

Mike Downie said his brother first heard Wenjack's story four years ago and never forgot it, even as he battles an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer announced earlier this year. 

"It never let Gord go, and never let me go," he said.

Proceeds from Tuesday's concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium will be donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. 

Wenjack's family has been heavily involved in the project, which has produced a graphic novel in addition to the film.

His sister said Gord and Mike Downie, along with the Tragically Hip have "become part of our family." 

"I had wanted to do something about my brother when he died that day in '66" said Pearl Wenjack. "I thought of calling Oprah, but I'm not very good at computers, so that failed." 

Wenjack said she was surprised to get a call from Mike Downie about 2 1/2 years ago when the idea for the project was just getting off the ground. Wenjack finally met the Downie brothers in September. She said the collaboration has allowed her brother's story to finally be told. 

"It brings two different kinds of people together — somebody that is nationally known and somebody that just lives in the bush."


Stephanie vanKampen


Stephanie vanKampen is a videojournalist with the CBC News in Prince Edward Island. Send story ideas to stephanie.vankampen