Thunder Bay

New Gord Downie work devoted to First Nations boy who died running away from residential school

A 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school is the inspiration behind a new project from Gord Downie.

Chanie Wenjack's story 'haunts me,' Tragically Hip lead singer says

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)

A 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school is the inspiration behind a new project from Gord Downie.

In 1966, Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack's body was found by the railway tracks near Kenora, Ont.

It's a story that so affected Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie, he created a solo album, a graphic novel and an animated film to honour Wenjack's memory and educate other Canadians about the tragedy.

"I never knew Chanie, but I will always love him," Downie said in a statement on Friday, announcing plans to release the package in October.

Downie is using his celebrity to draw attention to the legacy of residential schools and what he sees as the need for all Canadians to be involved in reconciliation.

"Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada's story," Downie said. "We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable."

The release of Secret Path coincides with the 50th anniversary of Wenjack's death. 

On Thursday, Downie visited the boy's family in Marten Falls First Nation, also known as Ogoki Post, about 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.

"We are grateful for Gord's efforts to shine much-needed light on this dark chapter of history and his humility, sincerity and artistry is matched only by his determination to tell the story of Charlie Wenjack and all youth from the residential school era, youth who never made it home," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

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 said his brother, Mike, first made him aware of Wenjack's story by sharing a Maclean's article written by Ian Adams in 1967.

Thousands of children died

"Canada is not Canada,' Downie said from Ogoki. "The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and the thousands like him — as we find out about ourselves, about all of us — but only when we do, can we truly call ourselves 'Canada.'"

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found 3,200 recorded deaths of children, like Wenjack, who died while attending residential schools in Canada. But poor record keeping means the number could be as high as 30,000, according to Senator Murray Sinclair who headed the commission.

Secret Path began as 10 poems written by Downie, recorded as songs in November and December 2013. When it's released on Oct. 18, it'll be 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 Sunday, Oct. 23.

Proceeds from Secret Path will go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

'Never been harder'

Downie went public with his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer in May.

News of this project comes after Downie issued a call to action on Indigenous issues during the Tragically Hip's nationally televised concert in Kingston, Ont. last month.

"Things up north have never been harder," Downie said from Ogoki.

While visiting with Wenjack's family this week, he was accompanied by leaders of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson and Ry Moran, the director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

"To have an iconic artist such as Gord Downie take a personal interest in the plight of the former Indian residential school students and in the healing process of our communities is truly remarkable," North Wilson said.

Several other events are planned to mark 50 years since Wenjack's death on Oct. 22, including the release of novelist Joseph Boyden's book about the boy, titled Wenjack.