© Photo by Jag Gundu
By Raye Mocioiu
Nearly 55 years ago, a twelve-year-old boy named Chanie Wenjack fled the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario. Chanie had been taken from his family, like so many other children, over 600km away from his home.
On October 22nd, 1966, Chanie died along the railroad tracks that he had been following home. Months later, the world read the story of Chanie’s short life in Ian Adams’ Maclean’s story from February 6th, 1967, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.”
After hearing about it from his brother Mike Downie, Gord Downie, former-frontman of The Tragically Hip, began Secret Path as ten poems incited by Chanie’s tragic tale.
“I was driving in the car one day and heard the radio documentary by Jody Porter about this boy who ran away from residential school to get home 600km away. I shared the [Maclean’s] story with my brother, Gord, the next day and we knew we had to do something to help share this story,” Mike Downie recalls.
“Here is this 12-year-old boy—my son Will was also 12 at the time—walking alone for days in northern Ontario trying to make it home. It’s a story we can imagine ourselves or our children living.”
Gord’s poems were fleshed into ten songs that tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and the tragedies he faced. The album, called Secret Path, acknowledges a dark part of Canada’s history—the long-suppressed mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the residential school system—with the hope of starting our country on the road to reconciliation.
Canada’s Secret Past
“Chanie’s story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were,” Gord Downie wrote in a statement. “History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996.”
Canadians are known for their overarching politeness and kindness. While true in some regard, this can overshadow the darkness that is part of Canadian history—and recent Canadian history, at that. When we hear the stories of residential school survivors and learn about the grave injustices that occurred in those schools, it feels incongruent with how we think about Canada. It can be discomforting to consider that Canada was not always a welcoming and loving place.
“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,” says Secret Path illustrator and animator Jeff Lemire. “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.”
In recent years, more and more Canadians have been learning about residential schools and the horrific stories of survivors. Many Canadians share that instead of learning about this dark part of our country’s history in school, they hear these stories through social media.
“I’ve spent the last three years living with Chanie’s story and living inside Gord’s music,” Lemire continues. “Gord’s haunting songs introduced me to Chanie Wenjack. Music is universal. It crosses languages and cultures and speaks to everyone, and I’ve always felt the medium of comics could do the same. It’s our hope that one day Secret Path will be taught in schools and that it will help to shed a light on this all too often ignored part of Canada’s past. I think, above all else, that’s what Gord and I wanted to create: something that can’t be ignored. Every Canadian should know Chanie Wenjack’s name and I hope Secret Path helps to make that a reality.”
The Path Toward ReconciliACTION
Inspired by Chanie’s story and Gord’s call to build a better Canada, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund aims to build cultural understanding and create a path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
“Gord and I, and our brother Patrick, had the opportunity to go to Ogoki Post and spend time with the Wenjack family,” Mike recalls. “It was life-changing. While we were there, we saw the groundswell reaction to the news that Gord was soon releasing Secret Path, and I thought, how can we harness this energy and help build a better Canada? That’s when we came up with the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.”
The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund embodies the Downie family’s commitment to improving the lives of First Peoples in Canada. In collaboration with the Wenjack family, the Fund works to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s story and aid our collective reconciliation journey through a combination of awareness, education, and action.
Chanie is survived by his sisters, Pearl, Daisy, Evelyn, and Annie, among many other family members who carry his legacy and story.
“When we talk about reconciliACTION, we’re talking about meaningful actions that move reconciliation forward,” shares Sarah Midanik, President & CEO of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. “ReconciliACTIONs aim to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together in the spirit of reconciliation to create awareness and learn.”
As more Canadians learn the truth about the dark side of our country’s past, Sarah urges everyone to remember that reconciliation will not be comfortable, but we all have a part to play in it.
“We encourage all people in Canada to consider what reconciliation means to them, and what role they can play in their homes, offices, and communities to move reconciliation forward. As Gord once said, ‘Do something.’”
Gord Downie’s Legacy
Through the Legacy Schools program, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund has helped thousands of teachers educate their students about residential schools so that the next generation of Canadians know our true history.
Norquay School, in Winnipeg, MB, is an inner-city school with a large Indigenous student population. The Grade 4, 5, and 6 classrooms are involved in the Legacy Schools program and have completed various reconciliACTIONs. They created a poster for Orange Shirt Day to research residential schools and even developed a digital library. Their library includes resources, links to helplines, stories, and other important information about residential schools and reconciliation.
In the same way, the Legacy Spaces program is an opportunity for corporations, governments, organizations, and educational institutions across Canada to play an important role in their communities. Legacy Spaces are safe, welcoming places dedicated to providing education and spreading awareness about Indigenous history and our journey of reconciliation.
Photo by REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Secret Path Week & Walk for Wenjack
In October and throughout the year, thousands of people across Canada will be walking to raise awareness for Chanie’s story and for the thousands of other children who never returned home. Secret Path Week, observed from October 17-22, marks the days that Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack joined the spirit world, respectively.
The first Walk for Wenjack took place in 2016 and retraced the steps of Chanie Wenjack. It started at the Cecillia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, ON, and continued to Redditt, ON, for a ceremony representing Chanie’s final resting spot near Farlane, ON. Since then, Canadians have hosted their own walks to educate and raise awareness of residential schools’ true history and impact.
“These walks are one way to engage and invite folks in who might be afraid of doing the wrong thing, feel uncomfortable, or may not know how to start their own reconciliation journey,” says Sarah.
Events remain mostly virtual this year, but there are many online resources and activities to participate in, from NFB documentaries to virtual events planned with our Artist Ambassadors.
If you want to do more and help educate your friends and family, host a Walk for Wenjack. If you’re not sure where to start or how you can contribute, start by reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and pick one to action that resonates with you,” Sarah shares.
“The path has been laid out for us, we just need to take the steps.”