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Mike and Gord Downie thank students for expressing voices to create change

Sophiasburgh students sing with Red Bear in wrap of up the Downie Wenjack Legacy Room launch at Books & Company.

The work of Sophiasburgh Central School students to make a lasting commitment to reconciliation received a standing ovation Tuesday night.

The students were part of the Four Directions Project with Darkspark, an arts education group led by Melissa Larkin and D’Ari Lisle. They showed four lyrics videos they created with about 150 people who attended the launch of the first permanent Downie Wenjack Legacy Room in Canada, at Books & Company in Picton.

Larkin, Lisle and Downie at the launch.

Larkin and Lisle, professional musicians, approached David Sweet and Isabelle Patton, of Picton’s Books & Company, to host a public presentation of the students’ work. That meeting resulted in the decision to take the support of this work one step further: to create a Downie Wenjack Legacy Room in Books & Company’s Miss Lily’s Café.

The Downie Wenjack Fund was created by Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie and his brother Mike Downie, with the Chanie Wenjack family. Chanie Wenjack is a 12-year-old boy who died while running away from an Indian residential school in 1966 – where he had been placed, some 600 kilometres from his family. His story is the focus of Gord Downie’s album, graphic novel and animated film project entitled “The Secret Path” released last year to raise funds to help those affected by Indian residential schools.

Mike Downie

Building awareness is key, said Mike Downie, Tuesday night, noting the Legacy Room initiative is the brainchild of Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Morley Googoo. It aims to create physical places where acts of, and discussion about, reconciliation can thrive. It encourages the designation of areas where Indigenous issues can be discussed, and reconciliation can become a reality.

Downie thanked all who came together to create the first permanent Gord Downie Chanie Wenjack legacy room at Picton. “It is amazing that this location of the first permanent room, is where the family spent so much important time.

“We were talking about it yesterday, and Gord sends his very best…. Gord is doing really well these days. He is very busy writing songs with a lot of his old friends and he’s recording songs. He’s really living his life and he’s a great lesson to me, our family, and friends and just about every Canadian I meet because he’s doing what we’re all meant to do and that’s to get on with things. Make a difference. Live your life, every day. It’s what we have, what’s right in front of us every day.”

Downie explained the trip to the County was an emotional one.

“It’s emotional for me, driving into Picton,” he said noting visits here started with with he and Gord and their other siblings driving in from Amherstview to spend summers at the Sandbanks. “When Gord had his own family, he bought this beautiful cottage at Cressy Lakeside and spent many, many wonderful summers coming to the County. I can tell you these were the best family times for Gord and the kids.”

Mike’s involvement with the Downie Wenjack Fund began more than four years ago when he heard Wenjack’s story for the first time on a radio documentary. The next day he told Gord about it over lunch and they decided to figure out a way to tell the story.

“We were so moved by it. We were so embarrassed that we didn’t really know anything about residential schools,” said Mike, who is a filmmaker. “We knew of them, not about them… We thought it would be a film… for this important story, a good place to start.”

They contacted friends who might write the story, and Mike notes that a few months later Gord called. He thought he would be hearing about connections with writers, but Gord told him he had “written a poem” from the research they had pulled together.

“I’m the older brother so sometimes I just think things, and don’t say anything. When Gord said that, I thought to myself, ‘a poem?’ and my interior voice said ‘What are we going to do with a poem?’. My outside voice said ‘That’s amazing, Gord.'”

He soon realized the poem was moving them forward on the project. Later, the poem became 10 poems that were made into 10 songs that influenced the book, then the film.

“Gord was at home, staying up late going through the research, internalizing what it was like for a little boy trying to get home, away from something really bad, and home where it was safe, and warm. And Gord was doing what an artist does – expressing what that might have been like. He was doing what artist’s have always done – opening our eyes, opening our minds and most importantly, opening our hearts.”

Indeed, with inspiration from Gord Downie’s work, and the stories of Chanie Wenjack and others, the Grade 7/8 class at Sophiasburgh school wrote their own words to express their voices to create change in their community and beyond.

Mike Downie thanked Darkspark for collaborating with the students “to open their minds to art, music and expression. “Information doesn’t really move the needle. It has to be internalized. It has to go inside before it comes outside to become useful to other people.”

Darkspark presented four lyric videos created by the students from Sophiasburgh as well as videos from Quinte Mohawk School, and schools in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Sophiasburgh is the first non-Indigenous school to be involved. A trip to the Arctic is in the works to help complete the ‘Four Directions’ of the project.

Robert McFadden, Sophiasburgh school principal, spoke of the opportunities for students over the course of the project to learn about the culture of students visiting from neighbouring Quinte Mohawk School.

“That is key to sustaining these partnerships in our communities and to help provide us guidance and understanding,” he said… “Experiential learning is not simply learning by doing. It’s a process of reflecting both during and after the experience and pulling meaning from it and applying what they’ve learned… There’s greater student engagement and motivation when students connect to situations they care about in their own communities and the world.”

Sophiasburgh school students work presented by Darkspark, an arts education group led by Melissa Larkin and D’Ari Lisle.

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