BOOK REVIEW: Gord Downie & Jeff Lemire – Secret Path (2016)

GORD DOWNIE & LEFF LEMIRE – Secret Path (2016 Simon and Schuster)

Residential schools are Canada’s shame.

History cannot be buried forever.  Eventually, atrocities are brought to light.  This terrible secret is no longer hiding in the dark.  It has shown the world that even the great nation of Canada has skeletons.  Tens of thousands of them.  Children, taken away from their families, and forced to assimilate.  Forced to lose their language, culture, and way of life.  All in the misguided and shameful effort to “civilize the savage” and “bring the heathens to God”.  Thus, “saving” them.

Thousands of these children never came home from the residential school system.  How many?  With bodies being unearthed daily, we may never know the true tally.  If Gord Downie were alive today, what would he have to say about these discoveries?

Downie and Jeff Lemire tried to tell us.  In 2016 they released Secret Path, a gorgeous and painful graphic novel to accompany the Downie album of the same name.  The book comes with a download code so you can listen along, and read the full lyrics.  It is the story of Chanie Wenjack, Anishinaabe by birth, raised in northern Ontario.  The residential school forced him to change his name to “Charlie”.  This is not ancient history.  This only happened in 1966.  The Beatles were the biggest band in the world.  Our parents were living normal lives.  Meanwhile, Wenjack and thousands like him were abused and tormented at residential schools all over the country, not even afforded the dignity of their own names.

At age 12, Wenjack ran away.  Home was 370 miles.  He never made it.  Secret Path is his story.

The book has no text other than the album’s lyrics.  Listening along is the best way to appreciate the rich images.  You must take time to study the lines and shading, for each page is rich with beauty and detail.

It was October of ’66 and the story begins with Chanie already on his way home.  Alone, following the train tracks, Wenjack is illustrated in stark black, blue and white.  The trees are bare, and ravens circle free overhead.  Chanie’s story is told in the form of flashbacks.   His thoughts go back to happier times, fishing with his father.  These memories are in full, beautiful watercolour.  Lemire captures the love in his drawings.

“My dad is not a wild man.  He doesn’t even drink.”

Chanie’s memories then go back to his first day at school.  Like a prisoner, he was issued a new haircut and new clothes.  His sorrow leaks through the pages.  He then thinks back to the morning of October 16.  Unable to tolerate any more abuse, Wenjack and two friends made a run for it.

“Now?”  “Not yet.”

“Now?”  “Now yes.”

They stayed briefly with the family of the other two boys, but Chanie wanted to return to his own home.  On his own, and only with a railway map, a windbreaker, and a jar with seven matches inside, Chanie followed the rail.  Only seven matches.

“And I kept them dry.  And as long as there were six, I’d be fine.”

“As long as there were five.”

“As long as there were four…”

His thoughts return once again to the school.  Sexual abuse is alluded to.  Chanie continues to run on his secret path, but he also tries to escape from his memories.  They are never far behind.  Only happy dreams of his father bring warmth, and they are gloriously painted in fall colours.  As he weakens, hallucinations manifest, both good and bad.  He wishes for revenge, and to see his father one more time.  The raven circles overhead.

“I’ll just close my eyes.  I’ll just catch my breath.”

While there is no way to really know the thoughts and feelings of Chanie Wenjack during his final walk, Secret Path is not a work of fiction.  It happened.  And now we know that Chanie is one of thousands.  Chanie Wenjack did not die on that train track from exposure to the elements.  He died of genocide.

If this book does not make you feel, then consult a doctor because something is wrong with your heart.

5/5 stars


  1. Powerful stuff their Mike. All countries have the dark history that has been buried for so long and is now starting to see the light and we now realize how cruel people & the governments can be. Terrible stuff, but sounds like this was beautifully done.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Get this — the last residential school in Canada close din 1996. 1996! Cobain was dead and STP were out with Tiny Music. Clinton was president. Kiss reunited.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I looked that up, and yes you seem to be correct. In both cases, the church was responsible and it went on way longer than it should have. Today is Canada Day and I could not think of a better time to post this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to pull an Aaron and not read this for now. I have the book here and I don’t want to read any reviews on it before I get to it. It isn’t so much for spoilers but I need to have my own experience. It has to wait for a day when I’m mentally prepared for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah man you have to be mentally ready to read this, and you have to be willing to take you time to linger on the page. I know you’ll get there eventually but it will drain you emotionally.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find the news of the Residential schools so sad in this incredibly sad time. I agree with John that it’s a good thing that it’s at the forefront of our news right now and it will be for a long time, as they discover more unmarked graves. I am hopeful that this will make people realize what Our indigenous population suffered and give some empathy and understanding but I’m not sure it will. Isn’t it ironic that Pierre Trudeau wanted Canada to be a multicultural society and yet Residential schools were still trying to “take the Indian out of the child”?
    Gord Downie tried to make us more aware before he died.
    The Catholic Church must apologize for this and schools must teach this and we must learn from this.


  4. Miigwetch. Thank you for this post and bringing attention to this issue and book/music. I am saddened, and disappointed, that Trudeau has not kept his promise to keep the memory of Gord Downie and his work alive, and implement the changes he, Trudeau, commited to.

    All the politicians are talking about what they are willing to do now, but the survivors and Elders have been speaking to this for many years and no one listened. Very few of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) 94 Calls To Action have been implemented; most have not even started. Days following the verification (not discovery, as we already knew of the graves from the stories told by the survivors) of the sites at the schools, the government was back in court fighting against Indigenous survivors and children over compensation and access to health care.

    Again, thank you for posting on this book and album.


    1. Thank for your comment Dan. I don’t trust the politicians to do anything right. I am very frustrated. If my little review helps in some way then I am glad. It was all I could think to do for July 1 this year.


  5. It’s a time of reckoning, isn’t it? A lot this country has to work through, and some relearning to do. The residential school system was not like a known known to me. This wasn’t like something that was taught in school! I felt like I was living in a strange Canada when I learned even what it was. I am not dumb, but maybe I was ignorant?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I remember about this from my school days was “We tried to teach them English and educate them.”

      When Jen and I got married we attended a service at a Presbyterian church, and that is when we really started learning about this. Pastor Wes Denyer at St. Andrews in Mississauga started telling us the truth about what really happened. It was shocking and it was just scratching the surface.


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