By Lee Waters
Gord Downie is releasing a new album and graphic novel about a young First Nations boy who died a half-century ago after running away from a residential school. Downie, who saddened Canadians in May with news that he suffers from an aggressive form of brain cancer, recently played his final concert with Tragically Hip after a highly televised Canadian tour. However, he is still promoting his recent project titled Secret Path by playing two solo concerts, The first at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 18 and the second at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Friday, Oct. 21.
Secret Path started as ten poems incited by the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve year-old boy who died on October 22, 1966, in flight from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, walking home to the family he was taken from over 400 miles away. According to the official Secret Path website, Gord was introduced to Chanie Wenjack (miscalled “Charlie” by his teachers) by Mike Downie, his brother, who shared with him Ian Adams’ Maclean’s story from February 6, 1967, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.” Mr. Downie recently travelled to Marten Falls First Nation, a remote Ontario reserve 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, to visit with the family of Chanie Wenjack, whose body was found beside a railway track. “I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him,” Mr. Downie said in a statement. “Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were.”
In winter 2014, Gord and Mike brought the recently finished music to comic artist Jeff Lemire for his help illustrating Chanie’s story, bringing him and the many children like him to life. According to the website, ‘Secret Path acknowledges a dark part of Canada’s history – the long-supressed mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the residential school system – with the hope of starting our country on a road to reconciliation.’
Jeff Lemire’s statement on the website describes his first meeting with Gord and Mike about the project. ‘Before we left the coffee shop I knew I was going to do it. I had to. Chanie’s story is one that will not let you go once you hear it. It’s a story that can’t be ignored. And yet, somehow, it has been ignored. By nearly all of us. He continues about the education system, “Growing up white in Southern Ontario, I never learned about Chanie Wenjack or about any of the tens of thousands of other indigenous children like him who were part of Canada’s residential school system. This is such a massive part of our country’s history, yet our schools didn’t teach us about it. Why? Maybe because it’s easier to live with ourselves if we pretend stories like Chanie’s never happened. But they did happen, and still happen. Chanie Wenjack lived and died, and no one knows his story.’
Chanie collapsed from cold and hunger while trying to make it back to Marten Falls from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. He was wearing only thin clothing when he set out on journey through dense bush and he did not know the way home. The Senator Murray Sinclair created an organization that spent several years recording the experiences of survivors of the residential schools. That inquiry found that the institutions funded by the federal government and operated by churches were aimed at cultural genocide.
“All those governments, and all of those churches, for all of those years, misused themselves,” Downie said in his statement. “They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder.”
Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, also travelled with Mr. Downie to Marten Falls. He told the Globe and Mail, “It has been reconciliation in action. You’ve got a very prominent Canadian, an amazing guy, deeply humble and caring and loving, who travels to a community like this with this incredible piece of his own contribution. And there has been this amazing coming-togetherness amongst and between the communities.”
All of the proceeds from the multimedia project will support the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which was created to preserve the memory of what happened at the institutions and the legacy of a system that ripped indigenous children from their families. It will be used to identify some of children who died at the schools and were buried in unmarked graves as well as to commemorate their lives and, in some cases, return them to their home communities.
Mr. Moran said the contribution that Mr. Downie is making will help preserve and care for the stories of the lost, “Gord lending his voice to the work of truth and reconciliation in this country really helps raise awareness across the country on this critically important issue that, until we face it, in Gord’s own words, we are not a country.”
The ten song album will be released by Arts & Crafts accompanied by Lemire’s eighty-eight page graphic novel published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Secret Path will arrive on October 18, 2016, in a deluxe vinyl and book edition, and as a book with album download.
Downie’s music and Lemire’s illustrations have also inspired The Secret Path, an animated film to be broadcast by CBC in an hour-long commercial-free television special on Sunday, October 23, 2016, at 9pm (9:30 NT).