Gord Downie’s powerful tribute to Chanie Wenjack can, 50 years after his death, act as a catalyst for reconciliation.
Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, right, examines a guitar while meeting with Pearl Wenjack, centre, and her sister, (in white jacket) and other locals in Marten Falls First Nation in this Sept. 8, photo. Downie visited the Northern Ontario First Nation to commemorate a new solo project, comprised of an album, graphic novel, and animated film, based on the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, near Kenora, Ont. (Sheila North Wilson / THE CANADIAN PRESS/Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak First Nation).
It is heartbreaking.
There is no other word to describe both the reality and the vision of Gord Downie’s Secret Path, the haunting poetry, artistry, music and true story of a 12-year-old Ojibwe boy, Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack, who fled the lonely and cruel life in a residential school 50 years ago this month.
Battered and bruised by his young life, he set out to find his way back to his family over 600 km away. His secret path home was a C.N.R. track and his only map was in English, a language Charlie could not read. Four days later, Charlie, who had already had lung surgery at a young age, died alone at the side of the tracks, frozen to death. His body was found by a train engineer. The railroad, one of Canada’s symbols of unity, ran through his life.
Airing on CBC today, Canadians will experience what two audiences, one in Ottawa and one in Toronto observed last week. The brilliantly animated screen projected above the stage, starkly reflects the children’s loss of humanity as they are stripped of their clothes and their dignity in the schools. They cower in the showers and in their beds as they experience excessive discipline and sometimes, sexual abuse.
The Kenora residential school, in which Charlie was located, was known for its nutritional and ear experiments. Some children became deaf as a result of the experiments. Some were kept on starvation diets.
The National Arts Centre’s performance was not designed for applause, but rather for silence; silence that was at times broken by weeping from survivors in the audience.
Charlie Wenjack’s story came to light as a result of a skilfully written article by author Ian Adams for Maclean’s magazine. Adams listed the dreadful statistics that give grim evidence of infant mortality and life expectancy for indigenous peoples. The story was written in 1967.
It is now 2016 and this week, four young indigenous girls in Northern Saskatchewan, aged 12-14 (Charlie’s age), chose not to run away but to take their own lives.
For years, all Canadian governments have owned this situation and grappled with it. Unearthing the facts has often been difficult. Like stepping-stones to truth, commissions have been forced to fight for information. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted that studying the past “often reveals a cache of secrets that some people are striving to keep hidden and others are striving to tell.” Even the groundbreaking report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was forced to appeal to the courts for records.
Compelled by witnesses, evidence and legal action, the truth was officially proclaimed when former PM Stephen Harper noted in his historic 2008 apology to students of residential schools, that 150,000 children had been separated from their parents for a century.
Any apology is the beginning of a healing process but how to repair 100 years of injustice, cultural genocide, forced assimilation and blatant racism? Even Justin Trudeau’s popularity and goodwill cannot overturn the years of despair and inequity. Bureaucracy took over humanity and the results were horrific.
The government is currently attempting to deal with many related issues — a Human Rights Commission finding of discrimination against 163,000 First Nations children; the possible adoption of a UN Human Rights Report, which recommends fundamental changes in Canadian law, and recent concerns by Senator Murray Sinclair regarding possible breaches of the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement.
But while the government struggles, individuals are light years away. Streaking ahead to the future, voices such as Gord Downie and author Joseph Boyden, creator of a Heritage minute about Charlie, are diving into popular culture while bringing history to light in innovative paths — paths which may lead to a new generation of understanding.
A recent report by Journalists for Human Rights notes a major shift in tone, although indigenous peoples are still under-represented in the media. Spurred on by a TRC observation and recommendation that “too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts,” educators too, are beginning to include the true facts in their teachings.
Perhaps this moment really is a turning point. But if so, it will take civil society, not just government, to be engaged. Reconciliation equally lies in creativity, understanding, education and philanthropy. Charlie had to take one secret step at a time.
But we can be bold. It is not a secret anymore.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.