The Gord Downie legacy you may not know: rooms for reconciliation

We all want to leave legacies, to our children, our families, and if possible, to the wider world. As a musician, Gord Downie had already left a remarkable one with his much-loved band, The Tragically Hip, before his death on Oct. 17.

Even as Downie faced his own mortality, following the diagnosis of his brain cancer in late 2015, he resolved to do more, through his work on the story of Chanie Wenjack, and the creation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

One of the fund’s signature projects are Legacy Rooms -- spaces where non-indigenous and indigenous people can talk together about their different experiences and further the aim of reconciliation. These have begun to spring up across Canada; one of the latest is a space within the Toronto headquarters of Scotiabank, which was formally dedicated in September.

The Legacy Room idea originates in Atlantic Canada, with Chief Morley Googoo, a Mi’kmaq from the Waycobah First Nation in Cape Breton, as well as Regional Chief for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for the Assembly of First Nations. Following the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, Googoo began approaching institutions and commercial spaces to create spaces dedicated to the process of reconciliation.

Promoting the establishment of Legacy Rooms has now become a key project for the Downie-Wenjack Fund. Googoo remains involved, along with Mike and Patrick Downie and the Wenjack family.

Mike Downie was present for the dedication of the Scotiabank Room and had this to say: “Scotiabank was very involved with indigenous communities already, but the beauty of the Legacy Rooms is that it is a physical space set aside, where reconciliation is promoted, supported, and encouraged, among employees, or clients, or whoever wants to take part. Some rooms are bringing in elders, some are hosting teachings. There's really no limit to the kind of thing that can happen….”

Scotiabank Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer Barbara Mason is flanked by Chief Morley Googoo (left) and Mike Downie at the opening of the Legacy Room at the bank’s Toronto headquarters on Sept. 26, 2017.

Chief Googoo agrees. “It's difficult for people to speak about some of these things. They worry that they will be misunderstood.” Legacy Rooms are a way to mitigate that, by creating safe spaces for dialogue to take place.

Five Legacy Rooms have opened in Halifax. A handful opened this year in Ontario along with one in Winnipeg. The host of each Legacy Room also commits to a five-year donation, which goes toward grassroots reconciliation programs.

“We’re very honoured to be part of this Legacy Room family,” said Scotiabank Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer Barbara Mason at the opening of the bank’s Legacy Room in September. “You’ll have our commitment that we’ll have the right kind of conversations in this room.”

The story of Chanie Wenjack is a powerful symbol of the experience of Canada’s indigenous peoples and the residential school system. Wenjack was born in 1954 on the Martin Falls Reserve, hundreds of kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. At 9 years old he was taken from his family and sent 600 km away, to a residential school in Kenora, Ont. At the age of 12 he and nine others fled the school. A week later his body was found beside railway tracks. In his pocket was a glass jar holding seven matches.

Residential schools acted for more than 100 years on an official policy of separating indigenous children from their families and indoctrinating them into European/Christian culture. Thousands of children died far from home. The survivors experienced emotional trauma that was documented in a class action lawsuit and official federal government apology, as the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Wenjack’s tragedy was first detailed in a 1967 Maclean’s magazine story. Downie’s older brother, Mike, discovered that account and shared it with Gord, who then made retelling Wenjack’s story the creative focus of his final year of life, culminating in the poetry, music and graphic novel titled Secret Path.

At The Tragically Hip’s final concert on Aug. 20, Gord Downie pointed out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the audience and called upon Canadians to look north and “do something.”

“The key is to get Canadians thinking: What can I do?” says Mike Downie. “My brother raised awareness among Canadians and all I want to do is keep that ball rolling.”

As Gord Downie famously also said: “We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written.” In Legacy Rooms, that process has already begun.

For more information on the work of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, visit its website.