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Canadian Icon Gord Downie Uses His Illness To Spotlight His Country’s Dark History

With The Secret Path, The Tragically Hip frontman tells a powerful tale of Canada’s treatment of indigenous people.

Canadian Icon Gord Downie Uses His Illness To Spotlight His Country’s Dark History

On one night in August, 11.7 million Canadians watched as The Tragically Hip played their final show in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The concert became a national event, aired live by the national broadcaster CBC and live-streamed on digital platforms, free of geo-blocking so expats could connect with what would become a seminal Canadian "where-were-you-when" moment.

Why was this show, a mere rock concert, such a galvanizing force? The Hip, as they’re known, is among the most iconic and inimitable Canadian bands ever, even if they aren’t the most successful south of the border. Sure, the band’s songs are paeans to Canadiana, which fans love, but this reflexive outpouring of coast-to-coast support and heartfelt emotion was largely directed at the The Hip’s beloved and electric frontman Gord Downie, who had recently announced that he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a terminal brain cancer.

Where this final show should have been (and was) a triumphant exclamation point to the band’s illustrious career, Gord Downie used it as an opportunity to draw attention to his most important project yet, one of greater national significance than songs about Bobcaygeon, the prairies, or that time the Leafs won the Cup. With roughly one-third of the entire country watching, Downie used this unique platform to address the country’s dark history as it relates to indigenous peoples.

It turns out the topic was on Gord Downie’s mind because he was, illness be damned, on the verge of releasing The Secret Path, a multi-media project based on the story of Chanie "Charlie" Wenjack. Charlie, as he was so misnamed by teachers, was a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who ran away from the residential school he was forced to attend, and died while attempting to walk home—over 400 miles away. And as Downie said in an exclusive interview with CBC, his current state of affairs "put[s] me in a position to get some attention."

If residential schools are unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, don’t fret: until very recently in Canada they were a largely unknown—or at least un-discussed—part of the country's history. This, despite the fact that between the 1880s and 1996, over 150,000 indigenous children were systematically removed from their families and placed into government-funded and church-run institutions with the express purpose of stripping children of their heritage and assimilating them into mainstream Canadian (or, at the time, European) culture. This cultural blind spot is what Downie is seeking to address with The Secret Path.

The project consists of a 10-song concept album on which Downie collaborated with Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew, a graphic novel storyboarded and illustrated by Jeff Lemire (both of which were released on October 18), and an animated film that brings the album and novel to together. The film is produced by eOne and Antica Productions Ltd. in association with CBC being broadcast on CBC on October 23, the day after the 50th anniversary of Charlie’s death, and streamed online thereafter. All proceeds are being donated to The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

Anniversary aside, the timing of all of this might seem unlikely. After all, how could someone facing his own imminent death mount such an ambitious project? In reality, the roots of it go back several years.

The story began for Gord with another Downie, his brother Mike. A documentarian, Mike says he heard the story of Chanie about three years ago on a CBC radio documentary. The piece referenced a 1967 article in Canadian newsweekly Maclean’s that told the tragic story of Wenjack’s death and the inquest that took place in the year after. "It was like a vector right to my heart," says Mike Downie. Not only was he incredibly affected by this little boy who ran away, he was shocked that as a man in his fifties he really knew so little about residential schools, the last of which only closed 20 years ago.

The brothers started collaborating on what they thought would be a film, but Gord’s creativity took it in a different direction. "He’d done all this research and started writing a poem. A little while later he wrote another poem. I’m like, 'That’s great but I don’t know what we’re going to do with these poems,'" says Mike. "Well, guess what? He writes 10 poems and they’re the full telling of Charlie’s story in a lyrical way."

Gord Downie and Kevin Drew then collaborated on the album. "Now we have a record and it’s an incredible piece of work. It’s not only Gord’s most important work, it’s some of his most powerful work," says Mike. The problem? With the 50th anniversary of Chanie Wenjack’s death two years away, they knew they had to keep it in the vault. "When you have a finished record, two years is an eternity but we felt that we’d have to hold off on the release."

That gave the pair time to start working with graphic novelist Jeff Lemire. When Lemire shared his first sketches of Chanie, Mike says they knew they had something special. The art renewed interest in a film but then came Gord’s diagnosis, which was revealed to family last November. "Everything changed in that moment. All of this was still there but it was obviously not a priority," says Mike.

It wasn’t until Downie’s illness was made public in May did the opportunity to fully realize the scope of Chanie’s story coalesce. Knowing that they had the country’s attention, they knew a film was needed. Mike says Gord suggested an animated telling of the graphic novel set to the 10 songs from the album. It was animated by Justin Stephenson in an impossibly short three months.

Together, as album, book and film, The Secret Path delivers an emotional wallop. As Gord Downie says at the start of the film, which is bookended by a short doc of Downie visiting Chanie’s family in Ogoki Post, an Anishinaabe First Nation situated in Northern Ontario, the project is "an attempt to capture the feeling, somehow, of trying to get home."

The songs themselves are haunting. Sometimes spare, other times energetic and intense, Downie’s voice is always vulnerable and innocent, and his lyrics spin a poignant first-person narrative. The graphic novel’s striking line-drawn illustrations stand strong next to the dreamy and dreary watercolor backgrounds, creating a moody scene.

As for the film? The 45-minute film is devastating. The slow, constant shuffle of Chanie along railroad tracks, the secret path, and the harrowing hollowness of his eyes bring such sad life to his animated figure. And the narrative, unravelled in snippets of memory, makes certain that viewers feel and understand the abuse, loneliness and despair that kids like Chanie, many of whom also died trying to return home, must have felt.

That sense of empathy is central to reconciliation in Canada, says Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, and a director of The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. That’s why he feels The Secret Path is so important. "There’s real power in these stories. We’ve seen this with the commission, people being fundamentally changed forever after hearing what it is that survivors have gone through."

Having Gord Downie bringing attention to reconciliation through the story of Chanie Wenjack is "a critically important part of Canadian history," Moran says, noting that even while the country was in the process of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which wrapped in 2015), only two-thirds of Canadians had heard of residential schools, and far fewer had any idea of the abuses that transpired. "Gord has been one of the most high-profile people to lend their voice to this call for reconciliation, and the first step to reconciliation is coming to terms with the truth and understanding the history."

Helping Canadians understand and empathize is one of the objectives of the fund and The Secret Path project. As Gord Downie said in a CBC interview when lamenting the country’s fractured relationship with its first peoples and discussing how to right the past: "We’re hoping to bridge the gap. Imagine if they were a part of us, and we them. How incredibly cool would that make us? That’s what’s missing as we celebrate our donuts and coffee over and over again."

Though as Pearl Wenjack, Chanie’s sister, says in the film, she hopes the momentum of change doesn’t end with Canada. "I think my greatest hope is that the rest of the world will see what went on in Canada but to not stop there. To continually heal; to do everything you can to bring that about."

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