Tragic story of Chanie Wenjack inspires garden at Canada Blooms show

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Tragic story of Chanie Wenjack inspires garden at Canada Blooms show

"Do Something." These words are displayed in moss on a wall at Canada Blooms, an annual flower and garden festival that runs this week in Toronto.

Nearby, there are stacked river stones, with water trickling down, as if they were tears.

The words and stones are close to a large pond, where there are pine trees, granite rocks, lilies and a miniature canoe, with the terrain designed to look like the Canadian Shield. White tulips ring part of the pond.

All of these elements are part of the Secret Path Garden at Canada Blooms, the annual garden and flower festival, held this year at the Enercare Centre at Exhibition Place until Sunday.

This garden is inspired by the story of a residential school student, Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. in October 1966.

Wenjack's story also inspired Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip, to write 10 poems, which turned into an album, a graphic novel and animated film. 

Joe Genovese, president of Genoscape Inc. Landscape and Design Services, based in Markham, Ont., said the garden is part of the overall theme of Canada Blooms this year, which is Oh! Canada, to mark the country's 150th birthday, but he wanted to produce a display that presented a fuller picture of Canadian history.

"I wanted to do something a little bit deeper in light of the theme given to us by the show organizers," Genovese said Thursday.

When Genovese began thinking about ideas for the project, Downie released his solo album, The Secret Path.

"I thought, that's perfect, that's the story we are going to tell," he said. "The story is about a young Indigenous boy who ran away from a residential school and he passed away. This was in 1966."

Genovese said the residential school chapter in Canadian history, which involves thousands of Indigenous children being taken from their families and has triggered years of trauma, needs to be told.

The garden, he said, is a reminder to visitors that this "dark chapter" is part of Canada. 

"It's a very negative piece of history for these Indigenous communities. The more I learned, the more I really thought that this is a story that we have to tell to help bring awareness to this and to help with reconciliation efforts."

The garden begins with a mock residential school. Visitors pass under a large archway and walk onto a path that circles a large pond, the focal point of the garden. Along the way, there is a set of railway tracks. Wenjack's body was found near tracks. 

"It really does resemble a northern Ontario climate," he said. 

Genovese said Wenjack's niece drove from Thunder Bay, Ont. to see the garden for herself earlier this week.

"We're touching a lot of people and it's a really nice thing," he said.

There is a memorial to Wenjack involving water and a pergola made out of large trunks and five columns of stacked river stones. The garden includes a jar and matches that Wenjack was given to keep warm. As visitors make their way round the path, they can see the words "Do Something" on a wall.

"Do Something," is what Downie said at the end of the Tragically Hip's final concert in Kingston, Ont. on Aug. 20, 2016.

The booth at the path's end contains information about the residential school system, said Genovese.

It's important to learn about the problems facing Indigenous people and take action, he said, adding Canadians should be thinking about these issues.

"It doesn't have to be on a scale like this," he said. "Any little act of reconciliation goes a long way."

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, which supports connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, has documented the building of the garden.