A cadre of Canadian authors and artists have created several projects to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy, and to speak to Canadians about the injustices First Nations people face. In 1966, at age 12, Wenjack ran away from one of Canada’s now-infamous Indian Residential Schools, where he was being abused, and tried to walk home. He didn’t know home was 400 miles away, and he died four days later of hunger and cold.
To launch his project, Gord Downie, lead singer of Canada’s hugely popular band the Tragically Hip, performed songs from his new album, about Wenjack’s life, at three concerts in Ottawa and Toronto. In addition to Downie’s album, titled Secret Path, there is a graphic novel of the same name by comic artist Jeff Lemire. Published in October by Simon & Schuster Canada, the book features the lyrics from the album. An animated film of Lemire’s art from the graphic novel played as Downie sang during the concerts, and the film, for which Downie’s 10 songs are the only words, was part of a documentary that aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on October 23 and that had more than a million viewers. The documentary also covered Downie’s trip to meet Wenjack’s family.
In a statement released with the book, Downie wrote: “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 rewritten.” For more than a century, beginning in the late 19th century, the Canadian government forced First Nations people to send 150,000 of their children to church-run residential schools with the express intent of assimilating them into white culture. They were often beaten for speaking their own languages and many were physically and sexually abused. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of 6,000 children dying in the schools but believes the number may reach as high as 30,000.
Proceeds from the Secret Path album and book are being donated to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. Felicia Quon, v-p of marketing and publicity for Simon & Schuster Canada, said that the company happily accepted when approached by Lemire and Downie’s team to be a part of the project. “We knew the importance, and we wanted every Canadian to learn about this subject.” S&S has 75,000 copies of the book in print. Those who buy the book are entitled to download the Secret Path album.
Lemire said that Gord and his brother Mike Downie brought the idea for the project to him in 2014. “They really wanted me to be the one to take the songs and put them into a narrative because they love the way I tell stories,” he said, adding that the brothers had the animated film in addition to the graphic novel in mind from the start. “When Gord and I first started working on it, what we hoped then and what it seems like it is doing is to be something that would get the attention of the country and be a tool that could be used in schools.” Lemire noted that he doesn’t recall any mention of residential schools in the books he read when he was a student. (Lemire’s upcoming graphic novel Roughneck, which will be published by Gallery 13 and S&S Canada in February, also features First Nations protagonists.) It’s hard to say what the future impact of Secret Path will be, and “the whole project has sort of taken on a life of its own at this point,” Lemire said.
Prominent First Nations author Joseph Boyden said that he and the Downie brothers had hoped for precisely that cumulative effect. Boyden’s novella Wenjack, published by Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton imprint in October with a 60,000-copy first printing, tells the story of Wenjack’s flight from the school and his death in a different form and style. The novella is written in part from Wenjack’s first-person perspective.
“As a writer, sometimes voices channel through you a bit, and his certainly wouldn’t let me go,” Boyden said. “There’s one existing photo of him that his sister Pearl allowed me to put in the back of my novella, and it is just this sweet little boy with rubber boots too big for him and he’s got a shy smile on his face. You can just tell this is a good kid and why did this have to happen to him?”
Boyden worried, however, about how to tell the bigger picture of residential schools without sounding essayistic or unnatural, and was surprised when a second voice came to him—that of Manitous, the spirits of the forest (a communal voice), first as a crow flying overhead, then as an owl. By the end, 12 spirits watching over Wenjack in the shapes of different animals bear witness.
Boyden was thrilled when renowned Cree artist Kent Monkman agreed to draw small illustrations of the animals as little space breaks. “But they were so beautiful that my publisher, Nicole Winstanley at Penguin, said, ‘They aren’t just little inch-by-inch space breaks, they should get their own page.’ ”
Downie involved musicians from several other bands to make the Secret Path album, and Boyden also brought other artists into the fold. When the First Nations band A Tribe Called Red asked him to contribute to its new album, Boyden did two tracks of spoken-word pieces about Wenjack. And he worked with métis filmmaker Terril Calder on Snip, an animated short inspired by Wenjack’s story. “It gives me great hope that artists can still gather together for something important,” Boyden said.
“I think all of these contributions should be essential reading and experiencing in schools,” said Penguin Canada publisher Winstanley. “Kids learn things and come to understand things in different ways, and so the fact that there is music, the graphic novel, the novella, and there’s going to be this short film... I think that is really the way to make them understand why this is so important, what reconciliation really means.”