Downie takes to Par­lia­ment Hill to speak out for Indige­nous Peo­ples

The Western Star - - Obituaries / Canada - BY JOR­DAN PRESS

Trag­i­cally Hip front­man Gord Downie made a rare pub­lic ap­pear­ance Sun­day to bring at­ten­tion to the on­go­ing plight of some of Canada’s young indige­nous peo­ple, liken­ing it to the same kind of pain young peo­ple suf­fered in the now de­funct res­i­den­tial schools.

He told young peo­ple gath­ered at fes­tiv­i­ties sur­round­ing “We Day,” the movement in­spired by chil­dren’s rights ac­tivist brothers Craig and Marc Kiel­burger, that they can learn a lot about the his­tory of govern­ment-funded, church-run res­i­den­tial schools, where indige­nous chil­dren en­dured wide­spread sex­ual, emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse.

Stand­ing on the stage set up on Par­lia­ment Hill for Canada Day week­end, Downie said that indige­nous chil­dren in parts of Canada still must travel great dis­tances to go to school, liken­ing it to “the pain, the tor­ture and the death,” suf­fered in the res­i­den­tial schools.

Indige­nous lead­ers say chil­dren reg­u­larly leave to the near­est ur­ban cen­tre to get ed­u­ca­tion and health care ser­vices not of­fered in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. There have been cases where the young peo­ple have died be­cause get caught up in risky be­hav­iour be­cause they lack com­mu­nity supports.

“It is still hap­pen­ing even though the res­i­den­tial school has gone away. Kids are still hav­ing to travel great dis­tances to live and go to school,” Downie said, with si­lence fill­ing the pauses be­tween his words.

Downie is suf­fer­ing from an in­cur­able form of brain can­cer and makes few pub­lic ap­pear­ances, but has used those to be a voice for the coun­try’s indige­nous peo­ples and the harm caused by the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

One day af­ter the coun­try marked 150 years, Downie used his brief time on stage to speak about the “new” coun­try that would be born in the next 150 years.

“Yours is the first gen­er­a­tion in the new and real Canada. I love you,” he said to ap­plause. “You and yours, the indige­nous, to­gether will make this a true coun­try now, one true to your word. The new 150 years, not the old one. The new one. Ex­cit­ing and true.”

The path to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was a key theme of the Canada Day week­end in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, which saw a group of indige­nous ac­tivists erect a demon­stra­tion teepee on Par­lia­ment Hill as part of what they called a “re­oc­cu­pa­tion” to bring at­ten­tion to the his­tory of indige­nous peo­ple. It was re­moved on Sun­day.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als have been the fo­cus of po­lit­i­cal heat over the party’s sweep­ing prom­ises to First Na­tions, amid in­creas­ing pres­sure to com­ply with a hu­man rights tri­bunal’s or­der to prop­erly fund First Na­tions child wel­fare ser­vices.

On Sun­day, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau told Downie and those in at­ten­dance that Cana­di­ans and their govern­ment must ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for “our fail­ings” as the coun­try tries to help vic­tims and their fam­i­lies heal decades-old wounds.

“Gord, your work is a pow­er­ful reminder of all that still needs to be done to ac­knowl­edge one of the dark­est chap­ters in our his­tory and make things right with Canada’s First Na­tions, Metis Na­tion, and Inuit peo­ples.”

Af­ter Trudeau spoke, a school choir per­formed Downie’s song “The Stranger,” the lead track off his solo al­bum Se­cret Path that tells the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wen­jack. Wen­jack died in 1966 af­ter run­ning away from the Ce­cilia Jef­frey In­dian Res­i­den­tial School in Kenora, Ont.

Downie had pre­vi­ously per­formed the song at a “We Day” event in Toronto in Oc­to­ber. This time, he stood to the side, ap­pear­ing emo­tional at times, and tip­ping his hat to the choir when they all donned sparkling pur­ple hats sim­i­lar to the one Downie wore dur­ing the Hip’s last tour last year.

As the choir walked off the stage, Downie shook the singers’ hands and thanked them.

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Daisy Wen­jack, left, Pearl Wen­jack and Trag­i­cally Hip front­man Gord Downie ac­knowl­edge the crowd at We Day on Par­lia­ment Hill in Ot­tawa on Sun­day. Downie’s pro­ject “Se­cret Path” tells the story of Chanie Wen­jack, who died in 1966 es­cap­ing a res­i­den­tial school.

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