OTTAWA — Canadians can unite on reconciliation efforts to honour Gord Downie's legacy, Indigenous leaders said Wednesday.
In the final months of his life, the Tragically Hip frontman became an outspoken advocate on Indigenous issues, notably as part of his "Secret Path'' project.
It honoured 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.
Proceeds from the album and graphic novel are being donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
"Gord often said he was struck by that story and he couldn't let go of it,'' Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said Wednesday in an interview. "He wanted to make it his mission to share that story with the rest of the country.''
It was almost as if Wenjack's spirit connected to Downie, said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
"It wasn't ... a show or an act,'' he said. "He was seriously concerned with relationships with the Wenjack family ... It is a sincere feeling, a sincere motive to try and bring about change.''
Canada can now take up Downie's challenge of building a better country, Bellegarde added.
"There's a lot of hurt and pain from the past,'' he said. "If we can find ways to do that collectively, we will really be honouring his work and his legacy.''
He was seriously concerned with relationships with the Wenjack family ... It is a sincere feeling, a sincere motive to try and bring about change.Perry Bellegarde
Towards the end of his life, Downie chose to support Indigenous People, said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson.
"To me, it is like he stood right next to us and held us up, held our people up with us,'' she said.
Downie's death is an "incredible loss,'' said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
"He put it so rightly when he said we've got 150 years behind us to learn from and 150 years ahead of us and we better just get to work,'' she said. "I think Gord Downie will be with us as we do that work.''
He set an example for all, she added.
"He will still guide us on this project of reconciliation which isn't just for Indigenous people, that non-Indigenous people have a tremendous role to play as we come out of this dark chapter of colonization and racism.''
In December 2016, Downie was named the man who "Walks Among the Stars'' during an emotional ceremony at a special chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que.
"It was a very spiritual, very special moment when we honoured Gord Downie,'' Bellegarde said.
"It was all part of a ceremony to help lift him up on his journey here, in this world, and into the next.''
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