Brought to life in death: Hundreds honour Gord Downie and story of Chanie Wenjack in Richmond Hill
51 years ago, he died alone on a dark, frigid night. On Sunday, hundreds paid tribute to Chanie Wenjack
In the final moments of Chanie Wenjack's short life, when the 12-year-old collapsed from hunger on a frigid October night, it was unlikely anyone would ever hear about his life and lonely death.
But on the 51st anniversary of his death, Wenjack's story was brought to life with a special screening of The Secret Path, a re-telling of the tragedy that inspired the late Gord Downie to shine a light on the injustices suffered by Canada's Indigenous peoples; his own death Tuesday falling just days apart from that of the boy whose name few would know if not for the beloved poet and musician.
Only a few years ago, Wenjack was a name Richmond Hill resident Eric Yager had never heard before. But on Sunday, he was one of hundreds who gathered at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts in the boy's honour. Without Downie, the 24-year-old said, Wenjack's story may have remained one of loss shared by the handful of those who knew it.
- Gord Downie's brothers open up about his childhood and legacy
- Maple Leafs honour Gord Downie before game at ACC
- Watch now: Gord Downie's The Secret Path
"We never really heard the bad," Yager said of his education on Canada's treatment of Indigenous people. "It was kind of only the good stuff ... Previous to what he had done, I'd never really known about what happened with them."
'Something I wanted to bring to my community'
Being at the screening in the days after Downie's death and knowing the celebrated musician had spent his final years dedicated to the cause of bringing the stories of Indigenous people to the fore, he said, "hit the heart."
It's an outcome organizer and documentary photographer Joel Clements had dreamed of since he began planning the screening in January after The Tragically Hip's final concert in Kingston last summer.
"The more and more I got engrossed in this story of Chanie Wenjack and Indian residential schools, I really felt like this was something I wanted to bring to my community."
At first, Clements said, he was asked to plan the screening in a room that would seat about 100 people.
"We kind of went out on a limb and thought we could get a lot more people interested," he said.
He was right.
'Best hidden secret of Canadian history'
As hundreds packed the theatre Sunday night, Clements says he almost couldn't believe the interest. He's sure Downie's death earlier this week played a role, but hopes many were there to answer the call by Downie to his fans and to Canada at large to learn about history of Indigenous suffering in Canada.
Harvey Trudeau, a residential school survivor himself, was also in attendance Sunday, on hand as part of the Ontario Indian Resident School Support Services based in Sault Ste. Marie, to provide emotional support for those who might struggle to relive traumas echoed by the events in the film
What exactly happened to children inside residential schools may be the "best hidden secret of Canadian history," he said.
Also present Sunday was Downie's brother Mike Downie, who delivered a moving introduction before screening The Secret Path, Clements said.
'A complete Canada'
All of the funds raised at the event are for the benefit of Biindigen Healing & Arts an organization assisting York Region's Indigenous community, along with the Gord Downie Chanie Wenjack Fund.
Yager says the event and Downie's dedication to telling the story of Wenjack left him inspired to better understand Canada's history.
"There's something that needs to be done, it shouldn't be put under the rug," he said. "It is their land and sure we live in it… but they were here first."
It's a message Clements said he hoped would resonate with those who attended.
"We've done lots of great things in the world but we've got this dark history...this beautiful Indigenous culture that's been ignored and suppressed," he said.
"I think it's time that we embraced that and we became this incredible country that we have the potential to be: A complete Canada."
- An earlier version of this story reported that Chanie Wenjack's sister, Pearl Wenjack Achneepineskum, was in attendance at the event. In fact, she did not attend due to a family matter.Oct 23, 2017 2:24 PM ET