Why all Canadians need to follow in the example of Gord Downie

Poet Gwen Benaway reflects on the dark legacy addressed by Gord Downie's new project Secret Path.

Poet Gwen Benaway reflects on the dark legacy addressed by Secret Path

Musician Gord Downie meets with Chanie Wenjack's sister Pearl Achneepineskum at the airport in Ogoki Post (Marten Falls First Nation) in northwestern Ontario. (Secret Path)

I learned of Chanie "Charlie" Wenjack's story in university. In 1972, a group of Indigenous students and alumni at Trent University campaigned for the newly constructed college to be named after Wenjack. As a compromise, the university named the largest auditorium at the new college Wenjack Theatre. Many of my first year classes were in that theatre, and I remember reading the small commemorative plaque outside the auditorium about Chanie. As an Indigenous student, I already knew about residential schools, but this was my first encounter with Chanie's story.

Ten years later, many Canadians are having their first meeting with Chanie and the legacy of those schools. Thanks to the artistic efforts of Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire, Chanie's story is reaching the national stage. The completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work and the publication of their final report is also bringing the reality of residential schools to the forefront of the conversation, and the new federal government has made reconciliation with Indigenous nations a key priority. As Indigenous peoples in Canada, we've never had as receptive an audience as now.

Some of the change in Canadian consciousness is directly attributable to actions of individuals like Gord Downie. Non-Indigenous people in Canada are beginning to move towards reconciliation as well, bringing their influence, expertise and resources to improving the lives of Indigenous communities. For the first time that I can remember in Canada, it is no longer acceptable to view Indigenous peoples as obstacles in the course of Canada's development. We're partners now, protected by court decisions and affirmed by a newly minted social justice approach to Canadian identity.

Gord Downie's new album to be released in October is dedicated to residential school runaway Chanie Wenjack and will be accompanied by an 88-page graphic novel by Jeff Lemire. An animated film, inspired by the music and illustrations will be broadcast on CBC on Oct. 23. (Gord Downie/JeffLemire)

At the same time, Indigenous communities across the country face numerous challenges. Particularly in the North, many Indigenous communities do not have access to safe drinking water or affordable food. Education and access to healthcare is extremely limited for many Indigenous people, including a large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada. Violence towards Indigenous women and members of the two-spirited community remains dramatically high. There are still two versions of Canada: the Canada of Muskoka postcards where non-Indigenous people also live, and the crippling reality of Indigenous communities who endure some of the world's highest youth suicide rates.

Read Indigenous advocate Jesse Wente's take on the importance of Secret Path here.

I don't describe Canada like this to highlight our ongoing victimization as Indigenous nations. We have never been victims — Indigenous communities have always resisted our oppression and worked to find solutions for ourselves. The important difference between our past and our present in Canada is the work of individuals like Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. In growing numbers, non-Indigenous Canadians are reaching across the divide which exists in Canada to support us in our work to rebuild our nations. Stories like the one in the Secret Path project are essential to build connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

The only way we move forward as nations within a nation is through conversations like the one Secret Path is starting.- Gwen Benaway

There were many Indigenous children who died like Chanie Wenjack. There were many others who lived but returned home forever changed. Some of those who ran away have never been found. They died or were harmed because they were Indigenous children in Canada. It was not an accident. As Downie has said in interviews about Secret Path, the Canada of Canadian mythology is not true. Something horrible happened in this country, because of this country, and everyone — Indigenous or not — is responsible for addressing this legacy.

I am grateful for the work of Canadians like Gord and Jeff. Adding their voices to ours, they speak directly to non-Indigenous Canadians as responsible parties to history. They are taking ownership of Canada's legacy and working to reconcile with Indigenous communities. The only way we move forward as nations within a nation is through conversations like the one Secret Path is starting. It will not bring back Chanie, nor will it fix the many wrongs which Indigenous communities are living with now, but it can build a place for us to move closer to what our ancestors intended. As imagined by the original treaties of this country, we need to create a relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations which is built on mutual respect and a reasoned sharing of the land and resources, and which holds the promise of future where all of us can be whole together.

I am often skeptical of Canada's desire to reconcile with us as Indigenous peoples. I worry that reconciliation could mean an erasure of our past and end up becoming another way Canada tries to absorb our unique Indigenous cultures. But while the story of Chanie Wenjack is a painful reminder of why many Indigenous people feel conflicted about reconciliation, there is also great hope in the story of Gord Downie. He is using his last moments on earth to honour the memory of a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who died a cold, lonely death by a railroad on his way home. I cannot think of a better expression of reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous nations than Gord's sincere desire to give Chanie Wenjack in death as much recognition and care as he clearly deserved from Canada in life. May all Canadians follow his example.

The Secret Path album and graphic novel were both released today and the animated film will be broadcast on CBC in an hour-long commercial-free television special on Sunday, October 23, 2016, at 9pm (9:30 NT) — with a livestream here on CBC Arts