Gord Downie’s Secret Path Revisited

The scared boy and the rock star

The story of Chanie Wenjack is one of trying to get home. 

We’ve all been there, exhausted from travel, maybe a little cold, a little hungry, a little cranky, but we have to keep moving in order to find a way home to where it’s safe and warm and comfortable. 

Chanie Wenjack was 12 when he tried to do just that — he tried to walk home. He didn’t realize it was 600 kilometers away in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve. He left the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, where he’d spent three years, with nine other children in October 1966. Those other children were found and brought back to the school. Chanie wasn’t found until October 22, a week later; he had died from starvation and exposure. 

Chanie’s story, sadly, is not a rarity. Just last week, on Orange Shirt Day — meant to draw attention to the residential schools across Canada that housed Indigenous children who’d been taken from their families and forced to “assimilate” in Canadian culture — the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation published a list of 2,800 children who died in residential schools. 

His story is one that struck deep in the heart of Gord Downie, who wrote the Secret Path as both a series of poems and songs and first performed them in October 2016, just after the Tragically Hip finished what would be their last tour. 

Secret Path Week, now in its second year, is meant to honour both Downie and Wenjack and their deaths, on October 17 and October 22, respectively. 

The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF) hosts, organizes and supports Secret Path Week as a time to remember Downie’s call during that last Hip show in Kingston, when he called on Canadians to “do something” toward reconciliation, to acknowledge the mistreatment of Indigenous people across the country and take steps toward making things right. 

What IS reconciliation, after all?

But what does that look like? How can regular people do something to make a dent in such an egregious, ugly period in history? 

It can be as simple as listening to, reading or watching Secret Path, or joining a Secret Path Week event. 

On a larger scale, look at what Arkells did earlier this year at the JUNOs, when they cut short their own acceptance speech to give their time to Jeremy Dutcher, who had won for Best Indigenous Album of the Year but his speech was cut short. The band of non-Indigneous people gave their time and platform to an Indigenous man to talk about reconciliation. 

It could be participating in one of the Secret Path Week events across Canada, in which people symbolically take steps toward getting Chanie home. For schools, this might mean all students walk a kilometer to collectively make up the 600 he was trying to travel all those years ago. 

There’s an event at Evergreen Brick Works on October 18 in Toronto that will include a short walk, screenings of Secret Path as well as the documentary “Finding the Secret Path” by Mike Downie and “The Weight of Your Heart: A Walk with Chanie Wenjack” by Joel Clements. 

Recreating the Secret Path concert

The next day is Secret Path Live at Roy Thomson Hall, where the all-star band that recorded the album with Gord Downie and backed up when he first performed the powerful songs three years ago will once again take the stage, with singers including Buffy Sainte-Marie and Whitehorse. 

The bottom line, and what the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund want people to take to heart, is the idea of “ReconciliACTION” — the embodiment of “Do Something” and really taking time to think about reconciliation. 

Secret Path Week is a time all Canadians to come together, to think about the horrible past of residential schools and the children taken away from their families, the thousands who never made it home, and try to do something to make the country a better, more united, more just place in which Indigenous lives are valued, their communities treated as worthy of resources, and their history acknowledged. 

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