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.