Gord Downie on Chanie Wenjack: ‘His story is Canada’s story’

Tragically Hip frontman and Toronto artist to release graphic novel


TORONTO — Just weeks after fans bid what they feared could be a final goodbye to beloved Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, the terminally ill singer has revealed he will release a new solo album with an accompanying graphic novel and animated film inspired by the tragedy of Canada’s residential school system.

“Secret Path’‘ tells the story of a 12-year-old First Nations boy in Ontario named Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont.

The album and book will be released Oct. 18 and the film will air on CBC Oct. 23.

“I never knew Chanie, but I will always love him,” Downie said Friday in a statement. “Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were.”

In May, Downie made the shocking announcement that he has terminal brain cancer. Tickets for the band’s “Man Machine” summer tour, which many feared could be their last, sold out almost immediately, leading to CBC picking up a national broadcast of the final tour stop in Kingston last month. The concert quickly became a national event as millions tuned in across the country.

During that final show, Downie called out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended the concert, to help fix problems in northern Canada in his last scheduled live performance with his band.

“It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, so it’s not on the improve. (But) we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help,” Downie said onstage.

In Friday’s statement, Downie said he learned the story of Chanie Wenjack, who was misnamed Charlie by his teachers, from a 1967 Maclean’s magazine article.

Downie recounted in Friday’s release how the boy died beside railroad tracks after escaping the school and trying to walk to his home more than 600 kilometres away.

“All of those governments, and all of those churches, for all of those years, misused themselves,” Downie said. “They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities.”

For more than 100 years, the federal government funded church-run schools across the country to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The last school closed in 1996.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes, which led to an apology from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

Downie began “Secret Path” as 10 poems that were turned into the 10 songs for the album, which was recorded over two sessions near Kingston in late 2013.

Proceeds from the album and graphic novel will go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the residential school system.

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