Thunder Bay

Meet the journalist who inspired Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden to write about Chanie Wenjack

Nearly 50 years after he first wrote about a little boy who died running away from residential school, Ian Adams' work finds a new audience on a national stage.

In 1966, Ian Adams stared down at the body of Chanie Wenjack and vowed his name would not be forgotten

Writer, photographer Ian Adams's 1967 article 'The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack' inspired Gord Downie's Secret Path. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"Don't let the cynics tell you that journalism is written to be forgotten," says writer Ian Adams, 79, reflecting on an article he wrote finding the national spotlight, nearly 50 years after it was published.

Adams wrote "The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack" for Maclean's magazine in 1967. This fall, two Canadian cultural icons are crediting it as the source of inspiration for new works that tell the story of Wenjack's death after running away from residential school.

"It was one of the few times that a national publication had exposed this dark national secret," Joseph Boyden said in the author's note of his new book, Wenjack, where he refers to Wenjack by his family nickname, Chanie.

Gord Downie's new album, graphic novel and animated film, Secret Path, began when the Tragically Hip lead singer read Adams's article, after his brother Mike heard it referenced in a CBC documentary in 2012.

For Adams, who says he feels at times that he "wasted his life telling people stuff they didn't want to hear," the renewed attention for the old story is both ironic and welcome.

"I remember looking down at the dead body of Charlie, way back then, and promising him I would do everything I could that his name would not be forgotten," Adams said during a recent interview with CBC News.

Adams was in Kenora, Ont., writing stories about racial tensions among Indigneous and non-Indigenous people when he came across two paragraphs in the local paper reporting on an "Indian kid who had been found dead beside the railroad tracks."

'Terrible and lonely death'

"It didn't even mention his name, how could a kid, who had apparently run away from school, just die and nobody know his name?" Adams asked.

Adams covered the inquest into Wenjack's death, afterwards writing in Macleans: "So this, then, is the story of how a little boy met a terrible and lonely death, of the handful of people who became involved, and of a town that hardly noticed."

The country hardly noticed either, and the now-famous article did little for his career back then, Adams said.

"I received all kinds of complaints and I got a letter from the CEO of Maclean-Hunter publishing who said to me, in the letter, that he didn't think that my kind of writing belonged in a magazine," Adams said. "So, I started looking for other work and shortly after that I became a freelancer."

Downie's retelling of Wenjack's story is "allowing people to talk about these things that we have been ignoring, much to our peril," he said.

'Silence of the media'

But the story is not over yet, according to Adams, who worries few journalists are delving into the hard truths of residential schools.

"Obviously a lot of things went wrong, horribly wrong, tragically wrong," he said. "We still don't know yet how many kids died. We should know. We should know how this terrible policy was originated and then was hung onto for so many years and kept running for so many years and also with acquiescence, because of the silence of the media about it."

The light that artists like Downie and Boyden are able to shine on Canada's residential school policy and legacy is critical, Adams said.

There are "these parts of our past that we have to approach — we can't treat them like a blank page, that they didn't happen," he said. "Because every country knows that after periods of oppression, of subterfuge and lying by government, that if you keep the page blank, it will come back in many ways to haunt you."