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Wenjack’s siblings and Gord Downie’s brothers present at official launch of renaming of university school

The families of Chanie Wenjack and Gord Downie gathered together with Trent University students, staff, faculty and local community members in Peterborough on March 2, 2018 to celebrate the official launch of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. (Photo: Trent University) To say this has been quite a week for those who hold close in their hearts the memory of Chanie Wenjack would be an understatement.

Just days after the federal Liberals earmarked $5 million for The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, Trent University officially launched the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies.

In doing so, the university ensured the participation of key figures in the movement struck in his name, among them Wenjack’s sisters Pearl Achneepineskum, Daisy Munroe and Evelyn Baxter, as well as Downie’s brothers Mike and Patrick. Pearl Achneepineskum holds a photo of her brother Chanie Wenjack in this screenshot from a Heritage Minute released in 2017 by Historica Canada. On October 16, 1966, Wenjack, 12, left Kenora’s Cecillia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, intent on returning to his home of Ogoki Post, some 600 kilometres away. Six days later, the Anishinaabe youth’s body was found near Farlane, the cause of death determined to be exposure combined with hunger.

Wenjack’s story was the inspiration for the album The Secret Path released by the late Gord Downie in 2016. That same year saw the establishment of The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, the goal of which is to further and assist Canada’s ongoing reconciliation with Indigenous people over past mistreatment and abuse, including the establishment of government-sponsored residential schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. I don’t think Chanie ever thought of anybody ever honouring him. He was just a little Indian boy. “I don’t think Chanie ever thought of anybody ever honouring him … He was just a little Indian boy,” said Achneepineskum.

“I prayed before I came that this would be a good day. Even though Chanie is not here, our brothers Mike and Patrick are here. I’m pretty sure Gord is here with us as well.” Pearl Achneepineskum, one of Chanie Wenjack’s sisters, in front of a photo of her brother. (Photo: Paul Rellinger / The Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies — the naming was first announced last June on National Aboriginal Day — brings together Trent’s undergraduate, masters and PhD programs under one umbrella, uniting events, initiatives and spaces dedicated to Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and culture at the university.

As noted by Professor David Newhouse, the school’s director, the naming continues a long and proud tradition of closely aligning the university with Indigenous peoples and their culture.

Back in 1973, Trent paid tribute to Wenjack, and all residential school victims and survivors, by naming its largest lecture space The Wenjack Theatre. But long before that, Trent became the first university in Canada to establish an academic department dedicated to the study of Indigenous peoples and knowledge. Trent University’s Wenjack Theatre was named in honour of Chanie Wenjack after a campaign spearheaded by students of the Indigenous Studies department in 1973. (Photo: Trent University) “Our goal in creating this school is to work to ensure the difficult past that we know about is not repeated,” said Dr. Newhouse. “The school is not a building. The school is all of the people who work here – the faculty, the staff and the students. We are the school. We will continue and it will change and morph over the centuries to come. Chanie Wenjack is a powerful symbol of our hope. […]

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