Manitoba

Gord Downie's 'generous gift' boosts National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

The University of Manitoba is commending Gord Downie's Secret Path, hoping it leads to more reparations for residential school survivors and those who didn't make it through that dark time in Canada's history.

Secret Path tells of 12-year-old Charlie Wenjack, who died escaping from residential school

Gord Downie's new album, to be released in October, is dedicated to residential school runaway Charlie 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)

The University of Manitoba is commending Gord Downie's Secret Path, hoping it leads to more reparations for residential school survivors and those who didn't make it through that dark time in Canada's history.

Downie has pledged to donate proceeds from the upcoming multimedia project — a solo album, a graphic novel and an animated film — to support the U of M-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation​.

The funds will support the work of the NCTR in honouring the stories of residential school survivors, as well as the centre's initiatives related to missing children and unmarked burials.

Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie travelled to Marten Falls First Nation in northern Ontario on Thursday with leaders of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, including Derek Fox (left). They met with the family of Charlie Wenjack, 12, who died in 1966 after running away from residential school. (Derek Fox/Facebook)

"I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said, 'This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem,'" Downie wrote in a statement, referring to the Manitoba senator and former judge who served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

U of M president David Barnard said he appreciates Downie's sincerity and call for Canada to address years of neglect of northern First Nations.

"It's something that has moved us deeply, I think, in this community — the University of Manitoba — and more broadly in Winnipeg and Manitoba. And to have this kind of visibility attached to it I think is really going to help create momentum around the work of the centre," he said.

Secret Path relates the story of 12-year-old Charlie (Chanie) Wenjack, who died in October 1966 while trying to return to his home in Ogoki Post from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.

Travelling on foot in an attempt to make the 1,000- kilometre journey home, his body was found along a rail line approximately 60 kilometres from the school.

Wenjack's parents were never told he had run away from the residential school. They didn't know he was dead until a plane arrived near their home carrying his body.

Downie travelled to Marten Falls First Nation (Ogoki Post) on Thursday with several Indigenous leaders, including Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents 30 First Nations communities in northern Manitoba.

The singer visited the boy's grave and met with surviving family members. A ceremony was also held in Downie's honour where he was presented with gifts, including an eagle feather from North Wilson.

"Our MKO First Nations and citizens across northern Manitoba have experienced similar historical tragedies as a result of the IRS [Indian Residential School] policy, such as the tragedy that happened to young Charlie Wenjack," said North Wilson.

"The Secret Path project represents … an initiative towards justice and healing, and to have an iconic artist such as Gord Downie take a personal interest in the plight of the former IRS students and in the healing process of our communities is truly remarkable. On behalf of the MKO Chiefs and community members, I would like to offer sincere and heartfelt appreciation to Gord for his tremendous efforts, and recognize him for his vision of reconciliation and for his
commitment to helping the IRS survivors and their family members across Canada achieve a lasting justice."

Secret Path began as 10 poems written by Downie, recorded as songs in November and December 2013.

It will be released on Oct. 18, accompanied by an 88-page graphic novel illustrated by award-winning author Jeff Lemire. An animated film inspired by Downie's music and Lemire's illustrations will be broadcast on CBC Television on Oct. 23.

"We all know that Mr. Downie, when the spotlight was trained on him last month during that remarkable Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, deflected the attention away from himself and onto a cause central to our nation's future: the right to dignity and well-being for Indigenous peoples," Barnard said.

Downie's "generous gift" to the NCTR will help the ongoing efforts to identify and remember other children that never returned home from the schools, Barnard added.

"Through Mr. Downie's efforts, Charlie's story will rightfully live on in all our hearts."

Until we really come to terms with what transpired in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada as a state ... we do not understand who we are and we will not understand where we are going. And we are very likely to make some of the [same] brutal mistakes that we've made in the past.- Ry Moran

NCTR director Ry Moran, who also joined Downie at Ogoki Post this week, called the singer's visit and gift to the centre "powerful."

"When somebody like Gord Downie calls you up and says, 'You know, Ry, I've done this work. I think it's really important — I think it may be even some of the best work I've ever done and I want to give the proceeds to the centre — it's a very humbling position to be in and a really honourable position to be in," he said.

"What we can do with this is really make sure that all those other kids out there are remembered.

"There's a lot more work that we need to do, collectively, as a country. One of the big ones is to ensure that all of those kids that never made it back from those schools are properly honoured, properly commemorated and identified.

"With Gord shining his light on Charlie's story, I hope Canadians will take another step along the path to realize just how harmful and devastating those schools were for the over 150,000 children that attended them."

Canadians have an obligation to understand Canada's IRS history in order to understand themselves, and their country, better, Moran said.

The first residential schools were set up in the 1840s with the last one closing in 1996.

"Until we really come to terms with what transpired in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada as a state — and Canada's peoples — we do not understand who we are and we will not understand where we are going," Moran said.

"And we are very likely to make some of the [same] brutal mistakes that we've made in the past."

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