Thunder Bay

Gord Downie's Secret Path brings hope to Chanie Wenjack's family, 50 years after boy's death

The change that Pearl Wenjack has been seeking for 50 years, since her brother Chanie died while running away from residential school, is finally happening.

'It's time to get started,' Downie tells sold-out crowd in Ottawa

Musician Gord Downie meets with Charlie Wenjack's sister Pearl Wenjack in Marten Falls First Nation last month. (Secret Path)

Pearl Wenjack says the change she has been seeking for 50 years, since her brother Chanie Wenjack died while running away from residential school, is finally happening.

The little boy, who died 50 years ago this month, is the subject of Gord Downie's new multimedia project, Secret Path, which includes a new solo album, a graphic novel and an animated film.

Pearl and dozens of members of her family members travelled to Ottawa for the first of two concerts on Tuesday, to see Downie perform the new songs while the film played on stage behind him.

"I always wanted to bring this to a national basis where everyone will know the whole story of it," Wenjack said before the concert.

For decades she has attempted to make peace with the loss of her brother by sharing it whenever she can. It began when she was a child, watching her brother's body arrive home from residential school in a casket.

"I started off very small I swore that I would do something about it the day that he died," she said.

Downie learned Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack's story a few years ago from an article by Ian Adams originally published in Maclean's in 1967, and began crafting the 10 poems that would become Secret Path.

That was before he was diagnosed with brain cancer and the work became more urgent.

Suddenly two families — the Downies and the Wenjacks — were brought together in tragedy.

Gord Downie's Secret Path

5 years ago
Tragically Hip frontman wants the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who died running away from a residential school in northern Ontario, to be his legacy project 4:13

"Its strange in the way Gord sings the songs in first person," said Mike Downie, his brother. "He sings about dying in the last song and after the diagnosis – you know I want to say it changed, but in some ways it didn't … these two lives had intersected."

Pearl Wenjack says she feels the connection, too.

"He's my brother now," she says of Downie.

'It's filling him up'

During the concert on Tuesday, Downie shivered and hugged himself as he pantomimed Wenjack's final steps along the railway tracks, which the dying boy hoped would lead him home.

Yet somehow, by embodying the child who died, Downie appeared to become more alive on stage.

"It's filling him up," said Mike Downie."He's not looking back. He's looking forward and he's busy living right now."

Pearl closed the concert with a traditional Anishinaabe healing song, sung without accompaniment. Her hand was held by Downie as she sang, her strong, clear voice softening with emotion at the fourth and final chorus.

Charlie Wenjack's grave in Marten Falls First Nation at Ogoki Post in northwestern Ontario. (Secret Path)

She stepped back from the microphone, and then forward again.

"My father died in 1987 without ever knowing why his son had to die," she said. "My mother still waits. To this day no one has told her why her son had to go."

Wenjack's sobs filled the auditorium. A long moment went by and then, with a nod from his brother Mike, Gord Downie stepped forward, unscripted for the first time in the concert.

"It's just time to get started," he said. "It's time to get going, okay."

The families launched the Downie/Wenjack Fund last week to raise money to bring other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together.

Gord Downie | Exclusive Interview