Walk Downie’s “Secret Path” in Richmond Hill

Last fall, mere weeks after wrapping the powerful Man Machine Poem tour, Gord Downie released ” The Secret Path.”

The album and accompanying graphic novel and animated movie tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died trying to escape a residential school in the 1960s. Downie has stated very publicly he wants his legacy not only to be the music he made with the Tragically Hip, but efforts toward reconciliation between First Nations people and Canadians.

Now, a year later, the ripples of “The Secret Path” continue to grow.

Photographer Joel Clements is bringing together Mike Downie, Pearl Wenjack and Strictly Hip singer Jeremy Hoyle for a night of art and music to raise funds for the Downie Wenjack Fund for Reconciliation and the Biindigen Healing & Arts organization.

Clement will host “The Secret Path: Walking Toward Reconciliation,” on Oct. 22 at Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts. The event promises to be “an evening that will awaken the heart, mind and soul through music, animated illustration, photography and the spoken word.”

A powerful journey

Last November, Clements was one of the handful of people who ventured out to Kenora to retrace Chanie Wenjack’s last steps. Chanie ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and attempted to walk home to his family 600Km away. Chanie wore just a windbreaker and had no idea how far away he’d been taken from his family. Facing bitter cold and without any supplied, he died on the train tracks. His family wasn’t notified of his death until his body returned home a week after he went missing.

Clements took the opportunities afford by The Walk for Wenjack, as it was called, to photograph the school’s remaining buildings, the scenery, Chanie’s family, the supporters who retraced the steps and the emotional response of all involved.

Nearly a year later, it’s still difficult for Clements to talk about some of the photos he took. One of Chanie’s sisters remains powerful: in it, one sister is overcome with emotion and kneels on the track. His voice wavers at the memory.

“I get pulled between respecting privacy and wanting to document something that really communicated everything about the story of Chanie as far as the impact it had on his family,” he said.

It’s inspired Clements to pull the photos together with some natural sounds from the ruins of the school and narrate them, creating an immersive presentation that brings people into Chanie’s world.

Photo courtesy Joel Clements

“I really feel like this story needs it to be told and I’d like it to be told in my community,” he said. “Even if it’s two or three people that experience the same spark, this is what reconciliation is all about – it’s about people realizing they need to do something and the journey is figuring out what it is they’re going to do about it.”

During the Kingston concert, Gord Downie called on Canadians and their government to “do something” to move toward true reconciliation. It’s something Clements still feels moved by and a notion he’s taken to heart.

It’s what inspired his “Secret Path” evening in Richmond Hill.

Prayers, music and art on the “Secret Path”

The evening will begin with a territorial acknowledgment, prayer and honour song, followed by a viewing of “The Secret Path,” the animated film based on the album and book of the same name, introduced by Mike Downie, Gord’s brother.

Next up will be Jeremy Hoyle, whose band has played The Tragically Hip’s songs in the US and Canada for almost as long as the band itself. He will sing “The Stranger” from the “Secret Path” album.

Now a Buffalo resident, Hoyle grew up in Ontario and first met Clements after The Strictly Hip played an unofficial birthday party for Gord Downie at Adelaide Hall in February.

The two stayed in touch since. “Joel’s Clements’ passion is infectious,” Hoyle said. “His photos and videos from the Walk for Wenjack had an incredible impact on me. I was nervous when I introduced myself to Joel… I’m in awe of his artistry and spirit. It’s an honour that he would include me in this important evening.”

He, too, felt compelled by Downie’s call to “do something,” which Hoyle said has become a “credo” for many Tragically Hip fans.

“As a kid growing up in Canada, I was unaware” of the residential schools, Hoyle said. “I’m still ignorant to the scope and circumstances. It wasn’t discussed in schools. It wasn’t discussed at all. We need to talk and keep talking. And listening and learning.”

Pearl Wenjack will introduce Clement’s presentation. Called “The Weight of Your Heart,” Clements says the presentation allows audiences to  “walk the highway from Kenora to Reddit to the train tracks where (Chanie) managed to make it another 21 kilometers before he succumbed to the cold,” he said.

The evening also will feature a panel discussion with Mike Downie, Pearl Wenjack and Shirley Williams, professor emeritus from Trent University and a survivor of residential schools herself.

Travel together toward healing

Clements stresses that while both “The Secret Path” and “The Weight of Your Heart” focus on Chanie’s experience, the story and heartbreak aren’t Chanie’s alone.

“This is about thousands of children who were sent to residential schools and the thousands that never went home,” he said. “They mattered so little, they were worth so little, the government couldn’t even return their bodies. They were just buried in the schoolyard.” In some cases, their families weren’t notified for months, if ever.

Tickets ($25) are still available but selling quickly – Clements said more seats were opened to accommodate interest. It’s possible the auditorium;s 650 seats will sell out, something that would make Clements proud. And for those who can’t make the event, he’s encouraging donations to be made, either online or at the door, to the Downie Wenjack fund or Biindigen Healing & Arts, which provides support services for indigenous people in the York region.

Photo courtesy Joel Clements

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