What Chanie Wenjack's sister wants from Gord Downie's Secret Path
'I'm very concerned about children losing their lives, for school,' Pearl Achneepineskum says
Fifty years after Chanie Wenjack's tragic death while running away from residential school, his sister says it's time every First Nation had its own school.
The story of the 12-year-old boy who froze to death beside the railway tracks while trying to walk 600 kilometres home is getting a very public retelling through Gord Downie's multi-media project, Secret Path.
For his sister, Pearl (Wenjack) Achneepineskum, it's a new opportunity to fulfil a promise she made the day her little brother's body arrived home from residential school in a coffin.
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"I swore that I would do something about it the day he died. I would not have my brother's death swept under a rug," Achneepineskum said.
But decades went by, and it felt like Chanie's death was being ignored.
An inquest into his death — one of the first inquiries into residential school deaths — was held in Kenora, Ont. in November 1966. Among its handwritten recommendations is that "a study be made of the present Indian education and philosophy. Is it right?"
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An echo of that question can be heard in recommendations from a 2016 inquest into seven First Nations high school students who died while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ont., between 2000 and 2011.
Among the 145 recommendations for preventing the deaths of other students, the jury said that all First Nations should have high schools of their own.
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The students who died had traveled to the city from remote First Nations in northern Ontario, because, like Wenjack's home at Marten Falls First Nation, there are no high schools on their reserves.
Three of the deaths were ruled accidental, while the causes of four others remain undetermined.
'Native children matter'
"I'm very much concerned about the children going to high schools and losing their lives," said Achneepineskum, a grandmother to dozens of school-aged grandchildren. "Every time a child loses his life or her life, I walk through the same path and I remember the fear and the unhappiness of going, and wanting to get home."
Through Downie's work, Achneepineskum says she hopes Canadians will come to realize that "Native children matter."
Building high schools in all First Nations would demonstrate that, said the 68-year-old.
Only then will First Nations children and teens be able "to stay home, be content, be happy, like everybody else's children. That's what I was hoping to get from this. If Charlie's life can save other children then I've done my work," said Achneepineskum.