A public screening of Gord Downie's Secret Path in Kenora, Ont., on Sunday brought residential school survivors face-to-face with community members who knew little about their suffering in the city that was home to Charlie (Chanie) Wenjack's residential school.

Wenjack was 12 years old when he died while trying to walk 600 kilometres home to Marten Falls First Nation after escaping from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora in 1966.

He is the subject of Downie's new album, graphic novel and animated film, which aired on CBC Television on Sunday and was shared in community screenings across the country.

"In our region, we've heard many stories of abuse, we've heard many stories of runaways, we've heard many stories of tragedies that have happened with those runaways and its all because of fear — fear of being punished, fear of sexual, physical and emotional incidents that happened," said Larry Henry, a support worker for residential school survivors in Treaty 3. 

"It was important that we address that in a truthful and honest way with the audience," he added. "If we hurt, or harm somebody's feelings about it... the truth really gets to people, they need to hear that."


A traditional ceremony was held for Charlie (Chanie) Wenjack on Sunday at the former site of the residential school he attended in Kenora, Ont. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Dozens of people, including survivors and community members, shared food and conversation before the public screening of Secret Path.

Support workers were available for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who found the evening difficult, said Henry, who found parts of the film brought his own painful past to the present.

"We watched as children, each other being disciplined and excessive discipline was exercised from time to time and that fear came back to me as I was watching the documentary," he said.

In 1967, when Ian Adams published  'The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack" (the article that inspired Downie's project), he wrote that Kenora was "the town that hardly noticed" the little boy's death.

Henry said there is lots of work yet for towns and cities across Canada, including Kenora, when it comes to acknowledging the residential school tragedies that occurred in their midst.

'Dark secret'

"There's two brothers in Sioux Lookout that went missing — that's still a story that needs to be told," he said. "There's a young girl who died in a residential school south of here, without being provided treatment and kept inside the school.

"Those are the kinds of stories that each town knows of, but yet it's such a dark secret," Henry said.

The event in Kenora began with a traditional ceremony for Wenjack, at the monument on the former school grounds, Henry said.

"We know that the school property still carries a lot of young children, their spirits, that are still remaining here and from time to time we have those appearances here and we have to address them," he said.

Residential school survivors in Kenora feel a connection to the Wenjack family, he said.

"We hope that healing journey that they go on in regards to their loss is felt here in Treaty 3."