Portrait of Chanie Wenjack unveiled at Toronto’s Union Station

Thursday, October 19th, 2023 4:51pm


Image Caption

A painting by Blake Angeconeb depicts Chanie Wenjack surrounded by vibrant colours. In a poem by Danielle H. Morrison she writes that we only remember him in black and white from photos of that time, but "He lived and ran and laughed in a full spectrum of energetic colours and experiences, like any little boy would."
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Blake Angeconeb’s latest creation will receive plenty of attention.

And though he is pleased with that, Angeconeb, an artist who paints in the Woodland style, admits he struggled greatly while creating a portrait of Chanie Wenjack.

Wenjack was an Anishinaabe boy who died in October 1966 at the age of 12 running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora, Ont.

He had hoped to walk about 600 kilometres back to his family home in Ogoki Post, but he never made it. Nine others ran away that same day but were caught within 24 hours. Chanie’s body was found next to railway tracks a week after he fled, having succumbed to hunger and exposure.

The portrait, unveiled in a ceremony on Oct. 19 at Toronto’s Union Station, is part of the We Are Still Here exhibit. The exhibit has been on display since June at Union Station, a central transportation hub, which includes trains and subways.

The exhibit comes from a partnership between Union Station and the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. The goal of the fund is to continue the conversation that began with Chanie’s residential school story, and to aid the reconciliation journey through awareness, education and action. See the website here: https://downiewenjack.ca/our-story/

The exhibit includes nine art panels that Angeconeb created. The new addition to the exhibit, however, was something that weighed heavy on the artist from the start.

“It took me a while to be okay doing this,” Angeconeb said. “I struggled a lot when I started working on it.”

But the member of Lac Seul First Nation in northern Ontario, persevered.

“It’s an important story to tell,” Angeconeb said.

“Covering the topic of Chanie’s story is one of the saddest stories,” Angeconeb said, adding his father Blake also attended residential school.

“Now that I’m a father, if one of my kids got taken away, I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”

Thursday’s unveiling of the Wenjack portrait is part of Secret Path Week, which runs from Oct. 17 through Oct. 22.

The week is part of a national movement honouring the legacies of Wenjack and Gord Downie, the late lead singer of the rock band The Tragically Hip.

In August 2016, Downie had asked all Canadians to look at the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the country and to “do something” to improve it. Downie died in October 2017 from a terminal brain tumour.

Fund officials are hoping Angeconeb’s portrait of Wenjack will enable more Canadians to learn about the tragic death of the First Nations youth who tried to escape after surviving residential school for three years.

Sarah Midanik, the CEO and president of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, said an estimated 200,000 people pass by the We Are Still Here exhibit every day.

“It’s hard to not feel excited about something so big and impactful in a big space,” Midanik said.

This isn’t the first year, however, that the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund have partnered with Union Station to stage an exhibit.

Last year, the stills from Secret Path were on display at Union Station during the months of October and November.

Secret Path is a 10-song album and movie that Downie released in 2016. The work detailed Wenjack’s short life and tragic death from the residential school system.

And in 2021, an exhibit at Union Station shared details about the work the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund does.

“They’re a wonderful champion of our work,” Midanik said of Union Station.

A black and white photo of a little boy shows him leaning against a wood structure wearing a jacket. He is smiling shyly toward the camera.
Chanie Wenjack. Say his name.
Chanie’s body was described in the papers following his death as grey and thin. Even in the most recognizable photo of him smiling and leaning against a wall, we see him in black and white only. We remember him without colour, lacking vibrancy, his life taken.
But Chanie did live. He lived and ran and laughed in a full spectrum of energetic colours and experiences, like any little boy would. He ran so hard to escape the dark place that stole the life and colour of all our children.
We remember him. We remember them.
While their bodies lay in the dark corners that haunt us today, their spirits soar high in all of their playful innocence.
We remember them.
We remember him.
Fly high Chanie.

Poem by Danielle H. Morrison

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