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On a freezing night in 1966, a 12 year-old Ojibway boy named Chanie Wenjack ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. He died from hunger and exposure trying to walk the 400 miles back to his father. Now Gord Downie, frontman for beloved Canadian band The Tragically Hip, is releasing a solo album, animated film and a graphic novel produced in partnership with comics star Jeff Lemire to tell Wenjack’s story to a new generation, per an article from the CBC.
For those outside of Canada who may be unaware of the history, the residential school system was a practice whereby Indigenous Canadians (known variously throughout the years as Indians, First Nations, and Native Peoples) were taken from their communities and families and enrolled in boarding schools organized by the government and overseen by various Christian organizations.
The object was to separate the children from their families and from the influence of their culture so that they could be “assimilated” into Euro-Canadian culture. The practice had its genesis in the years before Canada became its own country in 1867, though it became official practice in 1876 and continued throughout most of the 20th Century. It’s believed 30% of indigenous children, or around 150,000, were placed in residential schools. At least 6,000 died there, perhaps many more. Sexual and physical abuse were rampant, and poor conditions such as overcrowding, lack of sanitation and insufficient heating led to high rates of illness. Some children were deliberately kept undernourished by scientists to study the effects. And, of course, all of them had been forcibly kidnapped by the State.
The last residential school closed in 1996. The Canadian government formally apologized in 2008.
Gord Downie is releasing a solo album called Secret Path on October 18th, which tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. It’s part of a massive effort by Downie to bring greater attention through Wenjack’s story to the horrific legacy of residential schools and spur Canadians to think about reconciliation efforts. The project began as a series of poems by Downie, before he recorded them as songs in 2013. To accompany the release, an 88-page graphic novel co-written and drawn by Jeff Lemire (“Sweet Tooth,” “Essex County”) will also be published. Finally, on October 23rd, the CBC will broadcast an animated short film based on Downie’s album and Lemire’s novel. All proceeds will go to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Downie himself is a perfect vehicle to help provide voice to those who were so dreadfully affected by residential schools. The Tragically Hip is a Canadian institution, a rock band that never exploded to any great degree in the US or globally, but became an integral part of Canadian culture. Just a few months ago, Downie revealed he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, causing a national outpouring of sympathy. The Tragically Hip performed what could be their final concert in a nationally televised performance last month.
All of this love for Downie makes him the perfect medium for raising the painful and uncomfortable topic of Canada’s treatment and mistreatment of its Indigenous Peoples, providing an avenue for speech to a section of the population that usually has a difficult time getting the attention of the privileged.
As Downie says in the CBC piece, “Canada is not Canada…The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and the thousands like him — as we find out about ourselves, about all of us — but only when we do, can we truly call ourselves “Canada.”
Secret Path, in its various forms, will be released on October 18, 2016.