Thunder Bay

'A lot of us are still running,' residential school survivor says at Walk for Wenjack

In the eyes of a railway inspector, Chanie Wenjack was simply a "trespasser found dead" in northern Ontario. Fifty years later, the 12-year-old runaway from residential school is inspiring strangers to learn more about Canada's colonial legacy.

Gord Downie fans launch commemorative walk for boy who died running away from residential school

Stacey Barker and Rob Ferreira, with the fundraising group Courage for Gord, lead the Walk for Wenjack 30 kilometres through Kenora, Ont., to Redditt, Ont., close to where Chanie Wenjack's body was found. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Chanie Wenjack was simply a "trespasser found dead" in the eyes of a railway inspector when his frozen body was beside the rail line near Redditt, Ont., in 1966.

The 12-year-old run-away from residential school was always much more than that to his family back home in Marten Falls First Nation. Today, Wenjack is becoming beloved by Canadians across the country.

Part of the the Board of Transport Commission of Canada accident investigation report from Chanie Wenjack's death. (Library and Archives Canada)

Over the weekend, dozens of people — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — took part in the Walk for Wenjack, retracing the boy's last steps as he escaped Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ont., and made a desperate attempt to walk hundreds of kilometres back home along the railway tracks.

"I think part of what we're doing to do today, and I hope to speak with a bunch of survivors, is finding out how [residential school] has impacted them and how they are feeling today and what we can do to help," said Rob Ferreira, one of the organizers of the Walk for Wenjack, which saw people from southern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba take part.

Several residential school survivors who walked with the group talked about their admiration for Wenjack's attempt at escape.

"I wish I had the courage to run, to run away from what was happening," said Peter Sackaney as he walked with the group. "In reality, a lot of us are still running as adults because we live with the memories and we live with the nightmares."

'I wish I had the courage to run away from what was happening,' says Peter Sackaney, who attended a residential school. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Most Canadians, including police and health care workers have little understanding of why some former residential school students turn to alcohol or drugs to mask the pain of their experiences of loneliness and abuse as children, Sackaney added.

'They're still out there somewhere'

"Many times I ran away from residential school," said Fred Thomas as he walked. "That's how I think about that young boy who died. I felt lonely for my parents. I just felt it wasn't right for me to be away from them and I really felt guilty when I couldn't be active with them and learning the basics of survival, learning my own cultural teachings."

Thomas said he was always caught in his attempts to run away and taken back to the school.

Survivor Fred Thomas dedicates his Walk for Wenjack to his two aunts who are still missing from residential school. (Jody Porter/CBC)

He dedicated his walk on Saturday to his two aunts who disappeared from Pelican Falls Indian Residential School.

"I often wonder what happened to them. They're still out there somewhere, missing. So this walk is special for me because I have special memories of my two aunts.

Secret Path 'a call to action'

Ferreira, a sales executive from southern Ontario, is one of a handful of Gord Downie fans who say they were inspired to learn more about residential schools and plan the Walk for Wenjack by Downie's latest work, Secret Path, an album, graphic novel and animated film, devoted to telling Wenjack's story.

"For us, for me, it was a call to action directly from Gord Downie," Ferreira said. So the group coordinated with Grand Council Treaty 3, the First Nations government in the Kenora area, on the commemorative walk and a marker at the site where the Wenjack's body was found.

Rob Ferreira, (left), is a Gord Downie fan who hopes to make the Walk for Wenjack an annual event that fosters reconciliation with residential school survivors. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The efforts of the group to push towards reconciliation are appreciated, said Larry Henry works with Grand Council Treaty 3, providing supports to residential school survivors.

Much more needs to be done to find the thousands of children who never returned home from residential school, Henry said, and their families need continued support as they cope with the loss.

"Canada is not prepared to come forward and sometimes it takes a group that has great notoriety in Canada to bring it forward," he said.

Larry Henry, a support worker and survivor of Cecelia Jeffry Indian Residential School says he welcomes efforts to learn and share stories of other survivors. (Jody Porter/CBC)