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Mike Downie: Let's Do More To Embrace Indigenous Canadians

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Mike Downie, second from left; Pearl Wenjack, third from left; and Gord Downie, fifth from left, participate in WE Day Toronto on Oct. 19, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo: Vito Amati)

Gord Downie was a special guest at WE Day Toronto. He wanted to be there to share his message with us. A few years ago Gord read an article that had been published in Macleans magazine in 1967, "The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack." Those of us at WE Day understood this and the call to action that comes with learning.

After reading that article, Gord wrote a series of poems that are now the album called Secret Path to tell Chanie Wenjack's story. Chanie escaped from a residential school and tried to make it back home -- 400 miles away. He was found dead eight days later. It was 50 years ago today, on Oct. 22, 1966.

He ran away because his government-funded school was like a prison. The families in indigenous communities were tricked into thinking that this was a good choice for kids, with the Canadian government and church claiming these schools were much better than the city-based ones. What they ended up doing was ripping the kids apart from their families and their homes. Essentially, this action devastated and damaged the indigenous people still to this day.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mike Downie. Mike is Gord's brother, producer of the album and film, and works alongside Gord on this project. I asked my first question which lead to an answer and more understanding than I have been taught in school.

What was it like for you to be at WE Day with 20,000 youth in that stadium talking about the Secret Path?

Mike Downie:

I'm still processing it. I feel lucky that this has happened. It took three years for Gord and I to get to that stage.

I'm reading several amazing books, and when I say amazing, a lot of it is depressing. But it's amazing in that you go "Didn't know that, didn't know that, didn't know that" about my own country. I've always been interested in my country, I've always been interested in the world. You know, even working on this project, it wasn't until I went up to meet Pearl's family that the whole thing... -- the penny dropped, as they say. Ever since then, I question almost everything about this country.

I believe in this country, I just believe that there's so much more that we can do. I think that in this country called Canada that I love, I think we missed a really big opportunity. I think we have the solution. It's to embrace indigenous people and their ways of life. We try to wipe it out but the residential school story is from the last 130 years. It didn't work. It did a lot of damage to individuals, damaged families, damaged communities. The issues you see in the indigenous population are almost all the result of residential schools. These kids were not raised by their parents.

Hannah, you're 13. That's when kids were going to residential school for 10 months of the year. It wasn't a school, it was a prison for kids who had done nothing wrong. It's sort of like one of those horror books and it's meant to scare the hell out of you and in our case, it was a nationally government-sponsored program that ran from 1883 to 1996.

I always thought we were privileged to grow up in Canada and we are. It's just that a lot of people have paid a price for that privilege so I think we're going to change that. I encourage you to keep doing what you're doing and to turn those eyes north and south and east and west because our indigenous brothers and sisters are everywhere.

Get your friends to help and see what we can do, because those brothers and sisters are your brothers and sisters and we can change this country and make it such a better country. Their values, their patience, we have so much to learn from them.

Actually, I think that they have more to help us than we do to help them with some silly water issues. We're down here meditating and doing yoga and trying to beat the stress. They have a 10,000-year-old way of doing that and it's called living. It's called being attached to the land and things like that.

So I think that for this celebration next year, we should forget about the last 150 years, forget about celebrating donuts and hockey and I think what we should do is celebrate the next 150 years. We're going to be the next country in a post-colonial period to bring the two solitudes together, walk down the path of reconciliation and not make this country only better, but great. And great in the eyes of the world and we can do it.

Before Gord, Mike Downie and Pearl (Chanie's sister) got on stage at WE Day, I will say I didn't know a lot about the residential schools. I knew about the conditions of the indigenous communities, but like most Canadians, we weren't taught what a residential school was and why both the truth and reconciliation is so important to not only the indigenous community, but to all of us as Canadians.

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(Photo: Hannah Alper)

This is an overwhelming issue. It's a lot to think about and it's a huge problem and it has been for a long time. You might be thinking: "I'm just one person. I can't make a dent." That's not an uncommon response. Like so many of the issues that are facing the world, it's a big one.

Gord, Mike, Pearl and Chanie -- WE heard you.

So what will I do? I wrote this post, and my first step in tackling this issue was reading the Secret Path. My next step will be watching the film tonight with my family. I will continue to learn and share about Chanie's story and his 150,000 peers that attended residential schools and the nearly 30,000 that died, as we work together towards truth and reconciliation.

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