PETERBOROUGH, Ont. — Chanie Wenjack's sister said the presence of Gord Downie was upon Peterborough, Ont., Friday as she marked the opening of a school for Indigenous studies at Trent University named after her brother.
"Even though Chanie is not here, our brothers Mike and Patrick are here," Pearl Achneepineskum said as she drew attention to Downie's siblings across the room.
"I'm pretty sure Gord is here with us as well."
Speaking briefly as she unveiled an installation that honoured her late brother, Achneepineskum said she prayed for the day Wenjack's story would reach the levels of awareness it has in recent years.
With the help of Downie's "Secret Path" project, the story of the 12-year-old boy who died while trying to escape an Ontario residential school in 1966 has reached a national consciousness.
"I don't think Chanie ever thought of anybody ever honouring him as he was just a little Indian boy, just like the rest of us," she said.
"I prayed before I came that this would be a good day and that he would be with us today."
The Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies unites a number of undergraduate, masters and Ph.D programs under one name at Trent University, which has grown its Indigenous reconciliation programs over 48 years.
It follows a contentious decision that sidelined plans for Wenjack's name to grace a new college at Trent in the 1970s.
David Newhouse, director of the Chanie Wenjack School, said an "incredible debate" was waged in the academic community at that time, with some saying Trent shouldn't name anything after a boy who ran away from a school.
"At that point in Canadian history not much was known about Indian residential schools and their impact on Indigenous people," Newhouse said in an interview.
"And so the debate was lost."
Trent University compromised by naming the school's largest theatre after Wenjack. It wasn't until 2016 that conversation shifted among faculty as more people began to reconsider the past decision.
Officials reached out to Wenjack's relatives to ask for their approval in naming the school after him.
"We said, we're not looking at what Chanie was running from, but what he was running towards," Newhouse added.
"He was determined to get home to a place of safety, respect, dignity and love."
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