Title: Education, acknowledgement, resilience: How Downie & Wenjack Fund is encouraging Canadians to act during National Indigenous History Month
By Theresa Tayler
SPONSORED BY TD
June marks National Indigenous History Month, which means a time of celebrations from coast to coast to coast, and to commemorate the history, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples.
Just ask Sarah Midanik. Growing up around St. Albert, AB, as a proud member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, and part of one of the founding Métis families in the province, she is no stranger to community gatherings, including jigging, music, and other cultural celebrations.
This year, there is a sombre shadow in the midst of what is usually a positive and inspiring time. When the news broke at the end of May about the remains of 215 children at one of the largest residential schools in Canada near Kamloops B.C., Midanik, along with the rest of Canada, paused to sit with the truth of what many Indigenous People long understood.
“This has been a horrible time. The last thing we feel like doing is celebrating,” says Midanik, who is the President & CEO of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF). “But resilience and strength are at our roots and finding healing through culture and connection is at our core.”
DWF was founded in 2016, with the goal of moving reconciliation forward by building awareness, education and connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. In honour of National Indigenous History Month, for the past several years they have presented a series of events to celebrate the diversity of Indigenous Peoples across the country.
“We have such incredible partnerships with artists, Knowledge Keepers, Elders and youth that help to make our Indigenous History Month events come to life,” shares Midanik. “This year, it is important that we bond together and connect through culture, community, and shared experience.”
The Fund is part of the legacy of late Canadian songwriter, Tragically Hip frontman, artist, and poet Gord Downie, to improve the lives of First Peoples. His family, in collaboration with the family of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy born in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve in 1954, helped developed the not-for-profit.
At the age of nine, Chanie was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. At age 12, he tried to escape the school to reunite with his family. Nine others ran away on the same day, and all but Chanie were caught; his body was later found beside the railway tracks a week after he fled. Chanie died of starvation and exposure to the elements.
“[Gord] was so maddened and upset when he heard Chanie’s story. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t been taught about the atrocities of the residential school system growing up,” Midanik says.
In the wake of the discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, DWF launched the 215 Pledge to honour all children, families and communities affected by residential schools. The Pledge is a call to action to unite in truth and to commit to change.
“We are all grieving for the families of the 215 children who never returned home. This news reminds us that our work building cultural understanding and creating a path toward reconciliation only becomes more relevant and crucial,” says Midanik.
When the news broke, Midanik describes how she spent the weekend in conversation with Chanie’s family and how they spoke about what this moment meant to the survivors and those who have been impacted by the harrowing legacy of residential schools. One of Chanie’s sisters, Pearl, kept saying, ‘Now they know, now the rest of world knows we weren’t lying…’.
“This is really what DWF is all about – education and action. To create positive change that will improve the lives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” says Midanik. Adding that one of her favourite quotes is from The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who said: “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.”
Through the TD Ready Commitment, TD’s corporate citizenship platform, DWF has received support to help preserve and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ arts and culture, such as through TD’s sponsorship of the Indigenous History Month series.
“TD has supported us throughout this journey, which is especially impactful as a not-for-profit during a pandemic, ensuring that we are still able to move forward in sharing the hope, unity and celebration of different Indigenous communities and voices throughout the country,” Midanik says.
“Our activities this month will provide an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the history, cultures and achievements of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. It is also a time to reflect on the resilience of Indigenous Peoples and acknowledge the struggle, both against acts of racism they face today and the past actions that sought to erase their identity.”
TD has a long-standing commitment to Indigenous Peoples and communities. Together with organizations like DWF, they are committed to supporting programs and initiatives that help all Canadians learn about Indigenous Peoples and the work required to help advance Truth and Reconciliation calls to action.
This month, and all year-round, take time to reflect on the ongoing impact of the residential school system and the resulting trauma. Consider donating, developing your understanding by reading a summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, or explore some of the virtual events happening this month at communityevents.TD.com.