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Updates from the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, focusing on the Legacy Spaces, Legacy Schools, The Secret Path and all the community-based events, fundraising and reconciliACTIONs going on across Canada from coast to coast to coast.
Several communities along the James Bay Ice Road were treated with a special visit to their high schools by musicians Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet of Whitehorse in early March. Students at Vezina Secondary School in Attawapiskat, ON; Francine J. Wesley Secondary School in Kashechewan, ON and Delores D. Echum Composite School in Moose Factory, ON were able to hear the band perform and ask questions of them and their involvement with the Gord Downie & Chaine Wenjack Fund Artist Ambassador program. The Legacy Schools High School Artist Ambassador program brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians and other artists into high schools across Canada to inspire student leadership and forward the journey of reconciliation in school communities.
Once landed in Attawapiskat, the band and DWF staff went for a delicious lunch at Adrian Sutherland’s (of the band Midnight Shine, another Artist Ambassador) restaurant “The Moose Takeout”.
Students interviewed Whitehorse and took videos and photos for their art class, and were encouraged to ask questions. Two of the most popular questions by students for Whitehorse were, “Who is older?” and “How much money do you make as musicians?”.
In the afternoon, Whitehorse played a schoolwide concert in the gym. Following this, students got to try out Luke’s white Falcon guitar and take photos with the band. That evening, Whitehorse put on a community show at Kattawapiskat Elementary School, a school that was built after Shannen Koostachin and her peers launched the Students Helping Students campaign. The campaign was created in response to the government backing away from building a new elementary school in Attawapiskat for the third time in 2007.
Following an incredible day in Attawapiskat, Clarence Carpenter of the Attawapiskat First Nation Education Authority, drove Whitehorse and DWF along the James Bay Ice Road to Kashechewan to visit students at Francine J. Wesley Secondary School.
Students from music, English, and art classes met in the library to participate in the Artist Ambassador visit. Whitehorse had two sessions with students, during which they performed a rendition of “I Will Not Be Struck” – the same song they performed at Secret Path Live in October 2019 in Toronto. They chatted with students about what it meant to them to be part of that night and to be part of building Gord and Chanie’s legacy. Students got to check out the guitars and play a few chords, while other students took photos and videos as part of a workshop.
While driving down the James Bay Ice Road, the band encountered a group of people walking. Jasmine Koostachin, a member of Fort Albany First Nation, was walking a 150 km protest of the escalating drug problems within the northern communities.
Jasmine shared that she had a spiritual awakening, and felt the need to do the walk for her own healing and pray for her people who are struggling. She shared that each community has a need for local facilities rather than having to travel to urban areas where they may be at risk or exposed to harder drugs. Each day someone walked with her; Elders, relatives and community members.
In Moose Factory, a visit to Delores D. Echum High School started with a tour through the school with Principal Don Cheechoo. He showed us the robotics lab, woodworking shop (where students were making a canoe), and the mechanics shop where snowmobiles, cars and small engines get worked on. The school has an attendance program where students make Mahekum dollars when they maintain good attendance. The dollars can be used at the school store to buy things such as water bottles, school shirts, school supplies and if you save enough, a new computer or a bicycle. It’s made a noticeable increase in attendance and students learn the power of saving. Local Elders teach beading and cooking in the school, and the school’s freezer was filled with game such as goose, beaver and moose.
During the Artist Ambassador session, grade 8 students heard more about Chanie’s story, Gord’s passion and how Whitehorse became involved. This time students were able to contribute to the songs playing drums and egg shakers. Check the LIVE session Whitehorse shared on Facebook to hear the amazing rhythm section by students. Some of the students took part in a video workshop and were able to film the session for their school.
Whitehorse performed a community concert that evening at the JBEC auditorium which is attached to Moosonee Public School. Curry Gray’s grade 9 students at Northern Lights High School (and DWF Legacy School) had made all of the community concert posters for the event. Luke and Melissa were happy to be able to sign the posters and return them to the talented students who made them. Tameira, a student at Northern Lights High School also took photographs throughout the evening as the concert photographer. Grade 8 students also took part, selling delicious baked goods to raise money for their school trip during the show. Rob Faries of Relic Kings opened for Whitehorse along with Toxic Bay (a local band that played covers of Metallica and Alice in Chains), Curry Gray and the Poets (a Tragically Hip cover band that translates songs into Cree). After the show, Whitehorse signed autographs and took photos with community members.
Stan Kapashesit, Director of Economic Development for the Moose Cree First Nation treated DWF and Whitehorse to a tour of the community. He took the group to Hudson Bay House, the Cree Cultural Centre, the old Cold War military base and to the grounds where the residential school once stood. The fence remains at the site, and at the top of the fence you can see where the barbed wire once ran, but instead of turned out, it’s turned in to ensure children didn’t try to escape.
The trip ended with some of the group attending one of the James Bay Community Cup Tournament hockey games. It was a close game between Attawapiskat and Moose Factory, and the group was able to reunite with some of the students from the previous school visits.
Overall, it was an extraordinary experience. We are grateful for the journey and all the wonderful people who welcomed us into their schools and community. Chi miigwetch, thank you!
Late January, Mike Downie joined DWF staff in visiting several Legacy Schools; Linwood Public School, Kitchener-Waterloo Vocational & Collegiate Institute (KCI), Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) and Ryerson Public School in Cambridge. Every Legacy School begins the journey to understanding our shared Canadian history from a different place – be it location, age, knowledge – and it was a truly beautiful experience to have the opportunity to visit elementary, middle, and high school students to learn where they are in their journeys. Conversations were had about the great initiatives students and teachers have been doing, and Mike shared stories about how the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund came to be, the development of Secret Path, and what it means to see the important work being done by students. As Mike stated, “Gord knew we needed to get into schools.”
Linwood, Ontario – a shared David Martin Mennonite community just outside of Toronto – was our first stop. Mr. Piva’s grade 8 class at Linwood Public School greeted Mike Downie with exuberance and kindness that showed how enjoyable learning can be. Students were happy to share the work they’d been doing in understanding the connections between World War II internment camps and residential schools. Mike was treated to a beautiful rendition of the song “The Stranger” from Secret Path, and a few students shared their written responses to the Secret Path graphic novel, showcasing empathy and a desire for change. Students then presented Mike and the Fund with all sorts of handmade gifts, along with stunning wooden artwork which Mr. Piva himself created.
Next, we went to Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute (KCI) where staff and students from Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) joined us for lunch, eager to share all of the amazing things they have been doing. Students and educators went around the round table sharing reconciliACTIONs and personal stories of what reconciliation and this journey meant to them. The dedication to ensure that Indigenous perspectives and knowledge is engrained throughout all curriculum throughout the year was abundantly apparent. The drama teacher at WCI showed us an amazing play her students created, combining Phyllis Webstad and Chanie Wenjack’s residential school stories. During Secret Path Week, the physical education classes beat the collective Walk For Wenjack challenge to walk 600km in honour of Chanie, walking over 1600km. Students in French class are now able to choose Indigenous studies under the french umbrella. And one young student, upon learning about residential schools and the ongoing trauma, was some moved he immediately took action to “Do Something”. He initiated a fundraiser to help a local Indigenous group work for clean water in Six Nations. This same student, once learning of our upcoming visit, took up another collection that he happily presented to Mike for DWF. The stories and energy shared were truly incredible. A huge thank you to Ms. Allinotte for organizing such an amazing group on short notice and providing us with a wonderful lunch.
Our last stop was at Ryerson Public School in Cambridge to visit Ms. Gill’s amazing grade 5 students, who were the primary catalysts for this journey. Her class created art cards in December to celebrate over 40 Indigenous artists, which students then sold the cards and raised $520.00 for the Fund. Students all took turns showing us the incredible learning that was taking place at such a young age. Two students explained the artwork they designed for the classroom door depicting Gord and Chanie. We were also shown a display showcasing the seven grandfather teachings, walls that highlighted teaching about treaties and wampums, a display in which students debated whether they should rename their school after learning who Egerton Ryerson is, and individual displays that showcased important figures in Canada’s Indigenous history. It was truly impressive! We were then treated to the grade 3 class sharing what they were learning about important Indigenous medicines like sage, tobacco, cedar, and sweetgrass.
It was a truly special day. Thank you so much to all of the fantastic teachers that go above and beyond to make education engaging and important, and for preparing our future leaders to be kind and knowledgeable. Mike Downie was incredibly impressed and inspired, his brother would be proud.