He may have been a stranger to everyone when he died, alone and afraid on those cold railway tracks, but Chanie Wenjack is a stranger no longer.
When Gord Downie pointed a finger at Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during the August 20 finale of the Man Machine Poem tour in Kingston, beseeching his fellow countrymen and women to “do something” real and meaningful to help repair the relationship with First Nations people, there were nods and applause.
Next week, Nov. 18, a group of four board members of the Courage for Gord Foundation will be flying out to Winnipeg, driving to Kenora and retracing Chanie’s last steps. They’ll be joined by members of Chanie’s family, some survivors of the residential schools attended by more than 150,000 First Nations children over the course of 150 years and maybe a few others. It is doubtless the spirit of Chanie, and Downie, will weigh heavy in the mid-November air.
Rob Ferreira is president of the Courage for Gord initiative, started, tangentially, over the summer with fundraiser events before most stops on the Man Machine Poem tour. At first, all the money raised through pre-concert parties, silent auctions, raffles and the generosity of fans trying to make sense of Downie’s diagnosis, was designated for the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. More than $50,000 was raised.
“We got one of those big checks” to make the official donation, Ferreira chuckles.
When it was announced that Downie had another album of material ready to go, “The Secret Path,” and articles started to appear explaining the focus of the album and book, “I felt we needed to do more,” Ferreira says. “Now that the Man Machine Poem tour is done, we have continue this… With the result of the ‘Secret Path’ project, we reached out to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University Manitoba. They’re super supportive.”
Already some $14,000 in donations has been raised for the recently announced Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, to say nothing of the awareness disseminated across the country to the plight of children at residential schools and the quality of life among First Nations people today.
But it wasn’t enough. The Courage for Gord group wanted to do more. They wanted to do something big, something symbolic, something meaningful. Something real, a “true act of reconciliation.”
And so next week, Ferreira will be joined by Stacey Barker, Terri Manko and Jason Lafave to walk Chanie’s last steps.
At the site of the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, a swing set, a monument and a building used by the former school still stand. “We’re going to start there. We’re going to go from Kenora up to Reddit, which is pretty much a highway walk, and then from Reddit to near Chanie’s final resting spot,” Ferreira says. “That’s the secret path.”
He anticipates there will be ceremonies along the way, including a blessing or smudging ceremony upon arrival in Kenora.
“In order to walk these regions in northern Ontario, we had to get approval of the grand chief of these respective territories. There’s quite a ceremonial-type process—as you enter the territory, there’s a blessing, a smudging-type process that they need to go through to allow us into these regions,” Ferreira explains. To secure the correct permissions, and to be respectful of the people who live there and called Chanie family, with the help of Mike Downie and Stuart Coxe—producer of the “Secret Path” film—Ferreira has worked with Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation on the details of their trip. “Having that support in place has given us the ability to tap into the Wenjacks.”
For the Courage for Gord group, this is a gesture of reconciliation, respect, appreciation and hope. For the Wenjack family, “this is a healing process for them. It’s not for publicity. We’ve heard that directly from them, that’s why they’re excited about the walk,” Ferreira says.
The whole walk will take the better part of two days, from Kenora to Reddit to “Chanie’s spot on the railway.” It’s a six-hour walk to Reddit and another two-to-three hours to reach that spot, where the group, possibly joined by members of the Wenjack family and maybe some of the residential school survivors, will leave a marker. “We’re getting some guidance from the Wenjacks on what they’d like to see and how they’d like us to do it,” says Ferreira, underscoring the somber and sobering walk of a scared 12-year-old boy who met his fate trying to walk the 600km back home, in a windbreaker, not realizing the length of his journey.
The original thought was to do a full 600km walk, but given the time of year, that will have to wait. It is the intention and hope of the Courage for Gord group to make the walk an annual event, but maybe as a 600km relay, as it would take an estimated 115 hours to complete the journey.
And of course, for fans inspired by the journey, donations can be made to the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund which, as with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Sunnybrook Centre, has endorsed the group’s effort and established a relationship. The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack fund has an overall fundraising goal of $100 million, as stated by Downie when it was launched, and Ferreira is hoping their contribution will be “impactful.”
Those interested in keeping track of the #WalkforWenjack can do so in all the usual outlets: There’s a dedicated Facebook page, on which they’ll be streaming video when possible; a Twitter acount and Instagram handle. Donations will also be accepted through the Courage for Gord website, with a special landing page for the walk.
As for whether the Downie family knows of these efforts?
There’s a quote from Mike Downie on the organization’s website: “Love you guys! An army of virtuous believers spreading the seeds of reconciliation and national progress—with excellent taste in music.”
That’s the underlying beauty of this endeavor: It started as a group of fans trying to figure out a way to support a singer and a band that’s meant so much to them. There’s an evolution here, touched by heartache and tragedy and ugly truths from past sins, but it’s an effort to make good and do good in the world, to create something meaningful and positive out of something so layered in darkness.