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Gord Downie’s dedication to Indigenous issues lives on

On Sunday, CBC is to air Gord Downie’s Secret Path in Concert, a one-hour, commercial-free special filmed last year at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, where more than 30 members of Wenjack’s family were in attendance.

Timothy Moore/The Globe and Mail

"In my mind, I envision us standing behind Gord," says Mike Downie, older brother of the late musician. "To all these people who were inspired by him, he's telling us to do something."

Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie died of brain cancer at the age of 53 on Tuesday, leaving behind a legacy of not only towering songs and electric performances, but a path to Indigenous reconciliation.

Last year, the brothers founded the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, dedicated to the memory of a lonely 12-year-old Ojibway boy who in 1966 died attempting to walk from a residential school in Kenora, Ont., to his home about 600 kilometres away. The fund's purpose is to facilitate cross-cultural education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

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The idea to create the fund came after trip a year ago by the Downies to Ogoki Post in Northern Ontario to visit Chanie's mother, Pearl Wenjack. According to Mike, a documentary filmmaker, the trip was "life changing" for the brothers, who had collaborated on Secret Path, a project involving an animated film, a graphic novel and a concept album based on the story of Wenjack.

Secret Path came out in October, 2016, and the brothers realized that after the media cycle ran its course, the project might be forgotten. "We wanted something more permanent," Mr. Downie says. "We wanted to harness all the energy, emotion and reaction from Secret Path, and keep it moving forward."

Fans celebrate Gord Downie’s life at Ontario vigils (The Canadian Press)

Thus, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund was born. There are three components to the initiative: Support of the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; education (involving the incorporation of Secret Path into school curriculums); and something Mr. Downie calls "reconcili-actions."

The actions, typically funded with $5,000 micro grants, are aimed at helping the lives of Indigenous people. "It's real and it's personal, and it's making a difference," Mr. Downie says.

He points to Hockey Cares, which involved a minor-level hockey team from Oakville, Ont., reaching out to a youth hockey team from a First Nations reserve in northwestern Ontario. With the help of the fund (and a matching grant from a private donor) the team of youth hockey players from Attawapiskat was able to travel to Oakville for a tournament and a week of educational activities and cross-cultural camaraderie this summer.

For Mr. Downie, the action was fitting, given that his brother with the Tragically Hip had recorded the song Goodnight Attawapiskat in 2012.

A private service for the late musician is to be held Friday. A public event has not been scheduled, but is being considered by the family.

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On Sunday, CBC is to air Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert, a one-hour, commercial-free special filmed last year at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, where more than 30 members of Wenjack's family were in attendance.

Two night earlier, on Friday, CTV will broadcast Long Time Running, a documentary on the Tragically Hip's final tour, in the summer of 2016. It was on that tour's last concert in the band's hometown, Kingston, that the fierceness of the singer's First Nations advocacy was witnessed on a national scale.

"It's going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there but it isn't cool, and everybody knows that," he told the live audience and the millions watching and listening live on CBC. "It's really, really bad. But we're going to figure it out. You're going to figure it out."

According to Mr. Downie, his brother's interest in the history of residential schools and the Wenjack story was profound and relentless. "It was a fever," he says. "It just wouldn't let him go."

As for reconciliation, the process will go on, without one of its most public and recognizable voices. "Bringing Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people together and getting them to know each other is our responsibility," Mr. Downie says. "I truly believe that it's Gord's unfinished work."

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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