Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie has formed a partnership with a prominent aboriginal leader to encourage corporate Canada to do more to promote dialogue and reconciliation with aboriginal people.
The Legacy Room initiative, announced Tuesday in Halifax, is the brainchild of Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Morley Googoo, who represents Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Mi’kmaq leader’s plan is to encourage companies, particularly those in the hospitality sector, to designate special rooms where aboriginal issues can be discussed and reconciliation can become a reality.
“In those rooms, those stories need to continue to be told,” Googoo told a news conference outside the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, where Downie was later scheduled to perform as part of his “Secret Path” solo project.
The tour honours 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. Proceeds from the “Secret Path” album and graphic novel will be donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
“Reconciliation comes in many forms,” said Googoo, who is from the Waycobah First Nation in Cape Breton. “And much of corporate Canada does not know what its part is. The first thing is to continue the dialogue. We must continue to hear about the two amazing legacies (of Wenjack and Downie).”
After Googoo spoke, one of Wenjack’s sisters, Pearl, stepped to the microphone, and in a calm, quiet voice made it clear that it was important to her family to make sure every Canadian learned about her brother’s heartbreaking story, even though it has been 50 years since he died.
WATCH ABOVE: Gord Downie performs ‘The Secret Path’; inspired by Chanie Wenjak
“I’m here to tell you all that it’s not just a story,” she said. “It did happen. And I’m glad that people the world over have come to listen to our story … Chief (Googoo) has great plans. Something I never dreamed about.”
Pearl Wenjack, who lives in the remote village of Ogoki Post in the Northern Ontario bush, said she had wanted to tell her brother’s story on a national stage for many years, but the wait was worth it.
“The Creator’s timing is always the best timing. That’s his 50 years. That’s not my 50 years. I would have loved to do this before, but I’ve accepted the 50 years because it’s the right time. It’s the Creator that decides these things.”
Downie’s older brother Mike said Googoo’s idea is sure to take root and grow.
“I believe that it’s going to roll out across the country,” he said. “It’s like a perfect vector to go into different communities, let individuals come on board the program and then fill up these legacy rooms and let this story be told.”
One restaurant in Halifax, the Barrington Steak House and Oyster Bar, has already committed to setting up a Legacy Room with a special plaque. Googoo said he hopes to have 600 more businesses signed up within the next six months.
Companies that sign on will be expected to make annual contributions – through donations or fundraising – to the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, which was set up after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued its final report in December, documenting the history and legacy of Canada’s residential school system
Googoo said his initiative also includes encouraging corporate Canada to adopt one of the commission’s 94 “calls to action.” In particular, No. 92 calls on corporate enterprises to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The commission said companies should commit to obtaining consent from indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects, and provide education for management and staff on the history of Aboriginal Peoples.
Mike Downie has said the Secret Path project has kept his brother very busy, which has helped him deal with a rare and incurable form of brain cancer.
“It’s such an enormous national tragedy that we knew nothing about until four years ago,” he said. “And right from Day 1 we were so taken with Chanie’s simple story of trying to get home … We decided we had to try to find a way to tell the story.”
The concert in Halifax marks only the third time Downie has committed to perform the album. Concerts last month in Ottawa and Toronto marked the 50th anniversary of Wenjack’s death.
Downie’s brother, a documentary filmmaker, said he introduced the musician to Chanie’s story though a 1967 Maclean’s story by Ian Adams.
The “Secret Path” project started with a collection of poems, and Gord Downie’s 10-track album was announced just weeks after a Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ont., capped the band’s surprise summer tour.