Chanie Wenjack was an Anishinaabe boy born January 19, 1954 in Ogoki Post in Northern Ontario.
At nine years of age, Chanie and three of his sisters were sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora. Better known as the Shoal Lake school.
At 12, Chanie ran away from the school trying to walk the 600 kilometers keeping him from his family back home. Chanie never made it to Ogoki Post.
Instead, a week later railway worker found his body along the tracks. Because that worker found the body and was obligated to report that finding, this sparked the first inquiry into the death of a student from a residential school.
Chanie’s death is listed on the school’s official site as Charles Wenjack October 22, 1966. The school assigned him the name Charles. An additional 36 children are acknowledged as having died while in the care of Shoal Lake school officials.
In 1967, Ian Adams wrote an article for Maclean’s Magazine titled, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack” published on the heels of the first Indigenous protest held on November 21, 1965 that brought racism in Kenora to the attention of the rest of Canada.
It was after reading the Maclean’s article decades later that Mike Downie introduced the reality of residential schools to his brother Gord, the frontman for the band The Tragically Hip.
The Hip routinely played Kenora, Attawapiskat and other Indigenous territories, yet Gord had no idea that First Nations children had been stolen from their parents and forced to attend residential schools where they were robbed of their childhoods, language, culture, and were routinely sexually and physically abused.
Gord’s response was to create the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund which aims to build cultural understanding as a means to creating a path to Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Five years ago, the fund created the Legacy Schools Program. It started with 300 schools but now boasts 6,000 educators and 5,100 schools and groups participating in every province and territory across Canada.
The Legacy Schools Program is a free national initiative that engages students and educators. It helps them understand the history of residential schools all the while moving toward Reconciliation through awareness, education and connection.
Teachers receive an initial tool kit containing two copies of the book The Secret Path a graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire with lyrics by Gord Downie; a copy of Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action; a school flag; a calendar with important Indigenous dates, celebrations, and activities; as well as a guide and class set of legacy patches in the shape of the unmistakable Downie hat.
Over 650 resources are available to help teachers from kindergarten to grade 12 include Indigenous perspectives and ideas in their class curriculum.
Projects include teaching coding using The Secret path book and performing the high school play that’s available – just be sure to donate the funds raised to a local native group or the Downie & Wenjack Fund. Hold a walk for Wenjack and then have students write to Chanie’s sister Pearl.
The Gord & Wenjack fund even managed to convince the Hudson Bay Company to donate proceeds from the sales of their notorious, iconic Bay blankets – often purposefully infected with small pox virus before being distributed to First Nations peoples – to the Downie & Wenjack fund to bring Indigenous speakers into schools through the Artist Ambassador program.
Imagine icons like Buffy St. Marie a member of the Piapot Cree Nation, Tom Wilson whose parents were Mohawk from the Kanehsatake Reserve in Quebec, and Drew Hayden Taylor Ojibway from Curve Lake First Nation engaging with your students to share their lived history and experiences.
Without that Truth there can be no Reconciliation. And, without ReconciliAction there can be no Reconciliation.
Teachers, be the change you want to see in this world, join The Legacy Schools Program and welcome Indigeneity into your classroom today. Then . . . ACT on it.
This article first appeared on Small Change.
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