Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip and an advocate for First Nations people, was honoured at the Assembly of First Nations gathering Tuesday for his work highlighting the victims of residential schools. Downie's most recent project, Secret Path, tells the story of 12-year old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. An excerpt of the documentary film was played for the chiefs assembled in Gatineau, Que.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde presented the visibly emotional Downie with an eagle feather — a gift from the creator above — and he was given an Indigenous Lakota spirit name, which can be roughly translated as "Man who among the stars."
It was an overwhelming honour for Downie, who has terminal cancer, as he stood before the nearly 600 Canadian indigenous chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations special assembly in Gatineau. He was wrapped in an eight-point star blanket and given many gifts, including an eagle feather — an honoured gift from the Creator.
Downie became a brother, embraced in indigenous culture and history, as he continues his personal ambition to do his part to reconcile Canada.
Downie has brought the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack into the conscious of Canadians. Wenjack’s tragic death symbolizes the legacy of the residential school system that saw 150,000 indigenous children taken from their homes and sent to church run, state-funded schools for more than a century. Chanie ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in October 1966, only to die of exposure on the railway tracks as he tried to walk nearly 1,000 km home to Marten Falls First Nation.
Soon, Downie told the assembly, in the coming days and coming weeks, it will be Canada’s 150th birthday.
“I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will have taken 150 years or seven generations to heal the wounds of residential school, to become a country and truly call ourselves Canada,” Downie said, evoking the prophecy of seven generations. Indigenous people believe it will take seven generations for First Nations to rise through several stages of history and healing before a path forward is taken in harmony with all nations.
“We must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation as one. This is the first day of forever, the greatest day of my life,” Downie said as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watched along with AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
This was the second time the prime minister addressed the AFN’s annual December meeting, noted Bellegarde, who also said that while the prime minister and indigenous chiefs may not always agree on issues — such as the recently announced Kinder Morgan expansion project — it is important to have a dialogue of mutual respect.
“I know we’ll disagree with which path to take or at which pace. But the important thing is we keep moving forward, that we keep moving forward together … a new and stronger and better Canada,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau added that he did not take lightly his job of improving nation-to-nation relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Trudeau, who has faced criticism for not living up to promises he made to indigenous people when he was campaigning last year, said progress is underway on 36 of the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action that were solely under federal jurisdiction. “I understand many in this room are impatient … but that is okay because I am impatient to,” he said.
Trudeau pointed to the appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
“Not only is she the right person — indigenous or otherwise — for this central role, she is our government’s loud and clear message to our country that the laws of this land that were, and in many ways still are, used to control indigenous peoples are now the particular responsibility of a First Nations person.
"Wilson-Raybould will, along with her cabinet colleagues, now lead a joint effort with indigenous people, to de-colonialize Canada’s laws and policies that have held back indigenous rights," he said.
“As a teacher, I’m especially excited that this year, almost 2,000 students started the school year in six brand new schools. There are now 31 new schools under construction on reserves. Another 27 are being designed, and a further 72 are in feasibility studies,” he said.
Trudeau committed to enacting an Indigenous Languages Act, co-developed with indigenous people, with the goal of preserving, protecting and revitalizing First Nations, Métis, and Inuit languages.
Trudeau heard Downey when he spoke out about the importance of indigenous rights at his final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston last summer.
“Indeed, 12 million Canadians heard him that night. Gord, in simple and elegant words, used that moment to advocate and advance by many years the reconciliation dialogue in our country. Gord embodies all Canadians’ desire for reconciliation,” Trudeau said.