A room of his own: The legacy of Chanie Wenjack

March 18, 2017 | By Craig and Marc Kielburger

A length of railway track evokes the tragic journey of Chanie Wenjack in this “Legacy Room” created by landscaping company Genoscape at Canada Blooms national garden show. (Photo credit: McNeill Photography)

If there’s one thing you don’t expect to find in the middle of a garden show, it’s a railroad track.

Amidst the shrubbery and tool displays at this year’s Canada Blooms event, a landscaped pathway will tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died fleeing his residential school in 1966. Chanie walked for days in bitter fall weather, following railway tracks he thought would lead him home. Visitors will follow a path that evokes Chanie’s desperate journey through elements drawn from the story—a model of a residential school, and a length of railway track.

“I wanted to create something that was representative of Canada, but more meaningful than the stereotypical beavers and hockey,” says Joe Genovese, whose company, Genoscape, created the display.

Genovese was inspired by Secret Path, an animated musical short film about Chanie, created by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie. “I see a new path opening up. A path to reconciliation,” says Downie in an exclusive video interview.

Part of that new path will lead through “Legacy Rooms” like the Canada Blooms display at Canada’s National Exhibition Grounds It’s a new initiative by the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

Mike Downie, Gord’s brother and Downie-Wenjack Fund co-founder, says Legacy Rooms will “create a physical space where Canadians are not only reminded of the story of Chanie, but start thinking of how we can move the ball forward on reconciliation.”

“Reconciliation is about creating a continuing conversation,” adds Regional Chief Morley Googoo, who represents the First Nations of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador.

It was Googoo who first conceived the idea for Legacy Rooms, while attending a business dinner at Halifax’s Barrington Steakhouse. Noticing the restaurant had private rooms for special functions, Googoo proposed the owner dedicate one of the VIP rooms to Chanie and Gord Downie, decorating it with photos and information plaques. The owner agreed, and the first Legacy Room was born.

Googoo took his idea to Gord and Mike Downie. Why stop at a restaurant? Why not schools, libraries, corporate boardrooms—even garden shows? Putting Legacy Rooms in unexpected places encourages Canadians to talk about reconciliation in the course of their daily activities. Legacy rooms should inspire “reconcili-actions,” Downie suggests, like inviting a local First Nations elder to open staff meetings with a traditional smudge ceremony.

According to Downie and Googoo, there is already considerable interest from diverse organizations. Dalhousie University, Halifax Waterfront Development, and a hotel in Kingston, Ontario, have all expressed interest in creating their own Legacy Rooms. For a $5,000 donation, the Downie-Wenjack Fund will provide an official plaque and signage explaining Chanie’s story to set the tone for the Legacy Room. The money raised supports initiatives to teach about residential schools in Canadian classrooms.

For landscaper Joe Genovese, the Canada Blooms show will definitely not be the end of his Legacy Room. He dreams of creating a permanent outdoor Chanie Wenjack garden where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians can come together in the spirit of reconciliation, nation to nation.

For more information about creating your own Legacy room, email: [email protected]
Watch the exclusive video interview with Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack’s sister, Pearl: https://youtu.be/EyplGP7ZzjE

Elementary Resource
Secondary Resource

Use our library of resources to find lesson plans to support your commitment to engaging, educating and empowering your students.

Library of Resources

Sign up now to receive each weekly Global Voices column emailed directly to your inbox, plus related educator lesson plans and helpful links to information on global issues—an ideal resource package for stimulating classroom discussions and activities.

Sign Up