Daisy Munroe (left) and Pearl Achneepineskum, sisters of Chanie Wenjack, embrace at the opening of the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies at Trent University, Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, Ontario. Photo via TrentuU.ca.

On March 2, Trent University officially welcomed the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies into existence. Over 100 people piled into the Ernest and Florence Benedict Gathering Space in the Enweying Building to honour the life of Chanie Wenjack and celebrate this exciting addition to the University.

For those who are still unaware of Chanie Wenjack’s story, he was one of thousands of young Indigenous people who died as a result of residential schools. The 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy escaped the Cecilia Jones residential school in 1966, but died on his way home — a journey that would have entailed walking a distance of over 600 kilometres. In recent years, Chanie Wenjack’s story has reached a national consciousness, due to the late Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie’s advocacy and conceptual album based on Wenjack’s escape.

The grand opening of the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies was attended by many dignitaries including Chanie Wenjack’s sisters, Pearl Achneepineskum, Daisy Munroe, and Evelyn Baxter; Mike and Patrick Downie; Chief Phyllis Williams of Curve Lake First Nation; the first President of Trent University, Thomas Symons; as well as the current President of Trent University, Leo Groarke.

Chief Phyllis Williams welcomed everyone to the territory with a land acknowledgement before passing on Curve Lake First Nation’s congratulations: “As the elected Chief of Curve Lake First Nation, I bring kind respectful congratulations from our council and our citizens who reside within this territory and beyond.”

She went on to discuss the need for reconciliation, truth and renewed relationships which includes addressing the priorities of Curve Lake First Nation: addressing the William’s Treaty injustices, the flooding of their land, the development of housing for elders and families, environment and climate change education and governance and the need for clean drinking water.

The event continued with a beautiful song from Unity which officially brought the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies into existence.

President Leo Groarke then took the stage to commend several of the individuals who have played a key role in Indigenous Studies at Trent. He began with Thomas Symons, the founding President of Trent University who played an instrumental role in establishing the programs that have evolved into Indigenous Studies. He went on to acknowledge the significant contributions of Harvey McCue, Dr. Keith Knott, Chief Phyllis Williams, and Doug Williams to Trent’s Indigenous Studies programs and the broader Trent community.

He also discussed the history of Indigenous Studies at Trent: “Trent is tremendously proud that it was the first University in Canada to have, first an undergraduate program in Indigenous Studies and then the first University in Canada to have a PhD program in Indigenous Studies.”

President Groarke went on to say, “I think we’re all very lucky to be living at a historical moment — that moment when Canada has finally started to take Indigenous issues and concerns seriously… Trent, as an institution, is very committed to Truth and Reconciliation.”

The President also emphasized the tremendous amount of work that Trent Professor and Director of the new school, David Newhouse has devoted to the establishment of the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies. Newhouse later took the stage to speak about the school’s objectives and values.

“Through the Indian-Eskimo Studies program, then the department of Native Studies which morphed into the department of Indigenous Studies and now the Chanie Wenjack School, Trent has pushed the boundaries of what is possible. Trent has stepped on the path that others with follow… Our goal in creating this school is to work to ensure that the difficult past that we know about is not repeated. This school is not the building. The school is all the people who work here, the faculty, the staff, and the students. We are the school. And we will continue.”

After David Newhouse, Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie’s sister, took the podium, thanking Trent University for honouring Chanie. She spoke about her late brother, saying, “I don’t think Chanie ever thought of anybody ever honouring him as he was just a little Indian boy, just like the rest of us.” She also noted that she felt both Chanie and Gord’s presence in the gathering space.

Joy Davis, a fourth year International Development and Indigenous Studies major and former President of the Trent University Native Association, spoke on behalf of the students. She told the story of her Trent experience and how it introduced her to Indigenous Studies: “I’ve learned more about my culture; I’ve learned more about the other cultures surrounding this area; I’ve learned different ceremonies through the First Peoples House of Learning… I’ve also learned the history, which is often glazed over and I think we know that.”

This event commenced the Elders Gathering, an annual event that features vendors, panels, and workshops. The Elders Gathering took place over the whole weekend and is “an opportunity for students, faculty, staff & the community to listen and learn from the Elders & Traditional Knowledge Keepers.”