The story of a 12-year old boy who died from hunger and exposure is the subject of a new project spearheaded by the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie with comic writer and illustrator Jeff Lemire. This multi-media production is a mix of poems, music, a graphic novel and animated film.
The Secret Path takes place in the 1960s. Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack was an Ojibwa boy who was sent to a residential school at the age of nine. The Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School was located over 600km away from his home, Ogoki Post, in northern Ontario. At the age of 12, Wenjack ran away to go home, with only the light cotton clothing on his back. Wenjack did not make it home and died from exposure and hunger.
Wenjack’s life and death struck a chord with Downie.
Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. “White” Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it; it was hardly ever mentioned.
Downie wrote a series of poems about Wenjack. The poems were then fleshed out into ten songs in 2013 with his brother Mike. In 2014, the recordings were presented to Jeff Lemire to illustrate the dark Canadian tale. Without hesitation, Lemire knew he wanted to be a part of this project.
I first met Gord Downie and his brother Mike back in the winter of 2014. They wanted to discuss a potential project and, over coffee, they told me the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack. Gord was then in the final stages of recording his incredible songs based on Chanie’s life and he shared the rough mixes with me in the hopes that I would be interested in creating a graphic novel to accompany his album. 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.
The Secret Path is published by Simon & Schuster Canada and will be release as an digital download album + 88 page graphic novel for $26.99 CND as well as a deluxe vinyl edition which includes the digital download and graphic novel, as well as a vinyl cut of the album, and ten special lyric posters for $52.00 CND.
The release of Secret Path coincides with the 50th anniversary of Wenjack’s death. At 9pm (930pm NT) on October 23, 2016, CBC Television in Canada will broadcast the animated film adaptation of The Secret Path as an an hour-long commercial-free television special. A trailer showing Lemire’s moody illustrations with Downie’s haunting music is now online.
Fans of the rock star are surprised to know there is a new album coming from Downie as he is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year, and just completed a farewell tour with the Tragically Hip. Fans should not be surprised by Downie’s passion for justice and indigenous rights. At The Hip’s last concert in Kingston, Ontario, Downie demanded a call to action to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance, to address the mistreatment the Canadian Indigenous population as experienced and to commit to fixing the problem.
Lemire summarized why Canada is naive to Indigenous mistreatment:
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.
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.
Proceeds from the Secret Path will be donated to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconcilation via the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.