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Peterborough Public Library Opens Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
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May 27, 2023
Peterborough Public Library Opens Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space
Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

Peterborough’s own Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space was officially opened on Saturday May 27th at the Peterborough Public Library. Nestled along the northern wall of the library’s second floor, the space prominently displays a poster containing information about the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF) and resources related to education on topics of reconciliation and Indigenous history.  

The space is part of a program launched by the DWF in order to provide community access to resources to help spread awareness of Indigenous history, culture, and contemporary issues. 

The DWF is part of the legacy of Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip until his death in 2017. Downie devoted the last years of his life to telling the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died attempting to walk home from Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in 1966, through his writing and creating a solo album titled Secret Path, with the consent of the Wenjack Family. 

The multimedia project Secret Path, which includes an album, a book, concert film, and animated film illustrated by Canadian Jeff Lemire, has since been integrated into Canadian school curriculums as a teaching tool about the true colonial history of Canada, including residential schools, and its ongoing impacts on Indigenous peoples.

Alongside Downie’s work, the DWF also provides educators with numerous resources on their website through their Legacy Schools program.

The Peterborough Legacy Space has been under development since 2017 and was spearheaded by Mitch Champagne, an elementary school teacher, Instructor at Trent’s School of Education, and President of CUPE Local 3908, which represents part-time academic faculty at Trent.

Mitch Champagne addresses attendees of the opening of Peterborough's Downie Wenjack Legacy Space in the Peterborough Public Library on May 27th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

In 2017, Champagne, alongside his then teachers candidates and intermediate students from Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board (PVNCCSB) developed a series of lesson plans and resources for fellow teachers across Canada, which is available both through Trent’s website and the DWF’s resource page.

Champagne began the event by reading a land acknowledgement which was written by his current grade four and five students. 

“We know that change requires action, and we will work towards reconciliation through the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to action,” the statement concluded.

Champagne thanked local Indigenous communities, leaders, and groups for their support in going about this work in a good way. Trent’s First People’s House of Learning, Curve Lake First Nation Council, Peterborough & District Wapiti Métis Council, Community Race Relations Committee, and the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre.  

Champagne’s introduction was followed by the official opening of the event and the space with a performance by Brenda Maracle-O'Toole and Barb Rivett of the singing and drumming group Unity. 

L-R: Barb Rivett and Brenda Maracle-O'Toole of the Unity perform at the opening of the Downie Wenjack Legacy Space at the Peterborough Public Library on May 27th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

CEO of the Peterborough Public Library, Jennifer Jones, spoke about the significance of the opening of this space, and her hopes that it will serve its intended purpose as a reminder of the amount of work everyone in the community, but especially settlers, need to do in order to further reconciliation.   

“The Public Library is a safe space for many and for so many different reasons,” Jones said. “We're happy that we can continue to be that safe space for discovery, learning, and for those perhaps uncomfortable and awkward conversations that will help us all on our truth reconciliation journey.” 

Kayleigh Jordan-MacGregor, Development Associate with the DWF also spoke, noting that the fund’s research is being used in a variety of community and educational settings including summer camps, libraries, daycare centres, and after school programs. This, she said, was in order that “Indigenous perspectives are represented and celebrated in all places of learning.”  

“The ongoing recovery of young ones in our communities are a reminder of how much work there is left to be done. With this outpouring of grief many are asking ‘Where do we go from here?’” Jordan-MacGregor said. “Creating a dedicated space for growth and learning empowers us all to be part of the conversation. And it creates meaningful change in our workplaces and our communities.”

Peterborough’s Inaugural Poet Laureate, Sarah Lewis, was also in attendance and read a poem entitled “Take Them Home” which she explained was written for all the children who attended residential schools across Canada.

“How do we reconcile a relationship that never existed in the first place? God knows you don't need any more stories. So with that, I pray take them home creator, take them home…they're not just Canada's dark history, or shameful chapter,” Lewis’ poem proclaimed.

Sarah Lewis reads a poem entitled "Take Them Home" at the Peterborough Public Librariy as part during the opening of the library's Downie Wenjack Legacy Space on May 27th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

Before the reading, Lewis reflected on how she had come to learn of Chanie Wenjack through attending Trent University and attending classes in the Chanie Wenjack Theatre on the University’s East Bank, which was named in 1973. 

“I was shocked, but not surprised,” Lewis said. “I was shocked that  we were naming this room after a child who essentially died from exposure and hunger. How do we honour this child? We need to do better for our children in the future—those ones that did survive residential school, my grandmother, who survived residential school that had lasting intergenerational impacts.”

Many local labour organisations were funding partners for the Peterborough Legacy Space, including CUPE 3908, Trent University Faculty Association, United Way, Peterborough and District Labour Council, OPSEU Locals 365 (Trent) & 327 (Peterborough County), PVNC-OECYA and Kawartha Pine Ridge-ETFO. Representatives of many of these groups were in attendance to show support for the opening of the Legacy Space, and the audience included Town Ward Councillor Joy Lachica. 

Anyone looking to learn more about the Legacy Space can do so by visiting this page for updates on events, collections, and services the space will be providing.

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