Gord Downie, lead singer of diamond group The Tragically Hip, will be releasing a new solo album accompanied by a graphic novel in a project called Secret Path scheduled for release October 18, 2016. That date marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy fleeing from abuses at one of Canada’s notorious residential schools. These were institutions set up by the Canadian government and administered by the Christian churches that forcefully removed Aboriginal children from their families in attempts to indoctrinate them in European culture. In addition to murder, rape, and malnourishment, many children suffered abuses such as having needles stuck in their tongues as punishment for speaking their native language. Downie says, “I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him.”
The walk back to Wenjack’s home on the Marten Falls First Nation (NE of Thunder Bay) was a trek of 600 km, but Wenjack was desperate to flee from the nightmare. His corpse was found near railway tracks near Kenora, ON, 60 km from the school. He had died of exposure to cold October temperatures and hunger. “Chanie haunts me,” Downie says, “His story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable.”
The Secret Path project began as 10 poems which Gord later turned into songs. The album will be accompanied by an 88-page graphic novel telling Chanie’s story. It was illustrated by Jeff Lemire. Proceeds from sales will go to the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at The University of Manitoba. Downie himself paid a recent visit to Chanie’s grave and met with his surviving family members. The First Nations community was heartened by the fact that despite having terminal brain cancer, Gord would make the journey, and it hopes the project will help move Canadians along the path towards reconciliation.