A Peterborough teacher is using Gord Downie’s last project to enlighten elementary students about Indigenous history.
Songs from Secret Path — Downie’s album focusing on 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack’s tragic flight from a residential school in the 1960s — fill the Grade 6/7 classroom at Immaculate Conception School. Teacher Mitch Champagne incorporated the music as part of a new Indigenous history curriculum he formed alongside teacher candidates at Trent University’s School of Education.
The lessons are quickly being adopted by educators and schools across the country.
“I saw this as an opportunity to continue working with Gord’s work because the students really responded to it,” said Champagne.
Wenjack died on train tracks while trying to walk home from a residential school in Kenora, Ont., — one of many tragic stories about residential schools that curriculums too often ignored, says Champagne.
“The fact that he’s 12 years old and I’m sitting in a room with 12-year-olds, these kids hear this story and they feel genuine emotion,” said Champagne.
Wenjack was one of an estimated 150,000 youth in residential schools.
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“It’s really too bad that he couldn’t see his mom or dad at his age and that shouldn’t be happening at that time,” student Shawn Fitzgerald said.
Classmate Madeline Wannamaker added: “I liked learning about how he couldn’t speak English so he had to figure out his own ways to learn how to communicate with other people.”
Despite its dark tone, students say they enjoy the teachings. And Champagne believes the lessons go beyond the classroom — more so since Downie, the frontman of the Tragically Hip, died of brain cancer on Oct. 17.
“Because of Gord’s popularity, the kids are going home and telling their parents what they’re learning,” said Champagne.”Then the parents are having these discussions about reconciliation at their tables and I couldn’t ask for a better outcome than that.
The Secret Path lessons — which include artwork by Jeff Lemire — are available for free download on Trent University’s website.