Between the early 1800s and 1996, over 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were systematically taken from their families. They were sent away to residential schools run by church organizations and funded by the Canadian government. The goal was to teach these Indigenous children how to be “white Canadians”.
On October 23, CBC aired Gord Downie’s The Secret Path: a concept album that follows 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy, on his journey home. The album features 10 poetic songs inspired by Wenjack’s story.
In the 1960s, Wenjack was taken from his home in Ogoki Post in Northern Ontario and brought to the Cecilia Jeffery Indian Residential School. Held against his will, Wenjack decided to escape. The journey back to Ogoki Post was 600 kilometers, but Wenjack didn’t know this. He didn’t know which direction to go, or how far his home was. Yet, he believed that escape was his only option. Wenjack passed away on October 22, 1966, at the halfway point of his journey due to freezing weather and a lack of resources.
Downie first heard Wenjack’s courageous story from his brother, Mike. Hearing this story for the first time, Downie was awed by Wenjack’s journey and grisly death, particularly how they represent the ugly parts of Canada’s history.
The Secret Path is not Downie’s first time drawing attention towards the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. In August 2016, Downie reflected on this topic during The Tragically Hip’s final show in Kingston, Ontario. Downie interrupted the show to say, “We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands. Trudeau cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good.”
After the completion of The Secret Path’s musical component, Downie teamed up with illustrator Jeff Lemire to create an 88-page graphic novel depicting Wenjack’s journey. Downie and Lemire then worked together to produce a documentary, featuring Downie’s music and Lemire’s illustrations. The documentary not only follows young Wenjack on his journey, but reveals to Canadians the truth about our past.
Despite Downie’s battle with terminal brain cancer, he’s devoting the remainder of his time to help heal the wounds of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In September 2016, Downie personally visited Chanie Wenjack’s sisters in Ogoki Post, Ontario to hear the story for himself. Downie even accompanies the sisters to Wenjack’s grave to pay his respects.
The Secret Path takes the viewer on an animated journey from Wenjack’s perspective. Each song from Downie’s album represents a different chapter, event, or issue. The documentary’s colour palette consists of morose blues and grays. The only bright colour present in the film occurs at the very beginning and the very end. Here, the film enters real time, when we first meet Wenjack’s sisters.
Songs titled, “The Stranger”, “Son”, and “Don’t Let This Touch You” express the ugly truths behind the Canadian government’s attempt to assimilate young Indigenous peoples.
Downie uses his celebrity status to call attention to repressed and important issues. Downie opens up a new world for Indigenous artists.
Through his relentless devotion and eye-opening truths, Downie has opened a “secret path” for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to walk down together harmoniously.