How 'The Secret Path' is inspiring a new generation of Canadian students

Students in the London, Ont. area are learning about residential schools and taking up Gord Downie's call to 'do something' in the spirit of reconciliation. They met with Downie's brothers Friday in a day of activities in partnership with the Downie Wenjack Fund.

Students in the London, Ont. area learned about residential schools Friday and met with Gord Downie's brothers

Grade Six student Madelynn Lott has been learning about residential school history in her classroom at Central Public School in Woodstock, Ont. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Grade six student Madelynn Lott spent Friday morning painting a watercolour based on images from The Secret Path, Gord Downie's final project about Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Objibwe boy who died while trying to walk home from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.

For Lott and her classmates, the story is part of a broader curriculum that's opened their eyes to the reality of life for students at residential schools.

"We learned that the kids get abused, they get their hair cut off, they get stripped," said Lott, who attends Central Public School in Woodstock, Ont.

"They would be forced to speak a different language they don't even know. The nuns did a whole bunch of horrible things to the children, and we think it's really sad."

Thames Valley District School Board teacher Robyn Michaud says she ran out and bought The Secret Path "the exact day it came out" and has been using it as a teaching tool ever since. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Lott's teacher, Robyn Michaud, says she's been teaching her students about residential school history "for years," but The Secret Path, a project that includes the work of Essex County artist Jeff Lemire, has become an especially powerful teaching tool.

"[Students] look at Chanie as someone who is their age, so it really hit home," said Michaud, who is Anishnaabe from Sagamok First Nation.

"They're in shock and they cannot believe that happened on Canadian soil."

Michaud 's class had the unique opportunity Friday to share their artwork and their lessons with Gord Downie's brothers, Mike and Pat, who are working with the Downie Wenjack Fund to carry out their brother's mission of reconciliation, starting with students and teachers.

They visited three schools in the London area to talk about The Secret Path and how students are taking up his mission of reconciliation.

The visits were organized by the 2019 Junos host committee in London.

Students at Central Public School wrapped up their morning with a performance of the much-beloved Tragically Hip Song "Ahead by a Century." Afterwards, Mike Downie told them he hoped they would draw on what they were learning to build a "new Canada."

"One that has a really different idea of what this country's all about and what this country can be," he said.

From Michaud's vantage point, the project of creating that "new Canada" is well on its way. She said many of her students rush home to tell their parents what they've learned—lessons their parents missed during their own school days.

"It gives me a lot of hope for this generation, because they're the ones that are going to teach their parents and then they're going to be able to tell those stories to their own children," she said.

Antler River Elementary

Chief Myeengun Henry addresses the audience at Antler River Elementary School. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The Downie brothers next visited Antler River Elementary School on Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Friday, where students watched performances and heard stories from Indigenous artists Eric Mandawe and Adam Sturgeon.

"[The kids are] excited about seeing artists who are part of their culture, who can be a small inspiration to finding themselves through music," said Sturgeon.

Pat and Mike Downie say they want to continue their brother's mission of learning about residential school history and taking action. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Mike Downie said he was "honoured" to be there and to hear people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike share their fond memories of his brother's music.

"I'll never tire of hearing those stories," he said.

"I'll always be so proud of him... And for Patrick and I, it's trying to keep Gord's voice still ringing in our ears."