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Dying for an Education: A CBC Thunder Bay special report

September 5, 2012 | 3:00PM EDT

Charlie Wenjack

Charlie Wenjack was 12-years-old when he ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora. He had been gone a week when his body was discovered beside the railroad tracks near Redditt on Oct. 23, 1966. His parents weren't told that he was missing.

They didn't know he was dead until a plane arrived near their home at Ogoki Post (Marten Falls First Nation), carrying his body. His death brought national media attention to the plight of residential school students. But Charlie's sisters say it has yet to bring change.

Escape from Residential School

Sandy Lake artist Roy Kakegamic commemorated Charlie Wenjack's tragic attempt to run away from residential school in this work inspired by Trent University's Wenjack Theatre. Kakegamic attended Trent in Peterborough and took classes in the lecture hall, named in honour of the 12-year-old boy who died running away from residential school in Kenora.

Despite growing up in the same part of Northern Ontario, Kakegamic says he first heard about Charlie Wenjack at Trent. Listen to Roy Kakegamic describe the elements he incorporated into this work.

Pearl Achneepineskum

Pearl Achneepineskum says she expected drastic changes to First Nations education after her brother Charlie's death in 1966. In this excerpt from a CBC interview, she explains what it was like at residential school, and what made her want to run away:

When journalist Ian Adams called attention to the horrors of residential schools in his article published more than 40 years ago, Pearl said she was expecting to see schools built in First Nations communities. Instead, she says, children still have to leave their families, and all that's familiar, to get an education. Seven students have died since 2000, while attending school in Thunder Bay.

Daisy Munroe

Daisy Munroe said her family has never received an explanation for how her brother, Charlie Wenjack, died. She said her father wasn't allowed to attend Charlie's inquest when it was held in Kenora in 1966. "When that inquiry was going to be on, they didn't want my dad there," she said. "They said he was going to cause trouble." There were no First Nations people on the inquest jury.

CBC News has obtained the original, hand-written inquest report from Ontario's Coroner's office.

The family is requesting a new inquest to more thoroughly examine what prompted Charlie to run away from residential school.

Ian Adams

Journalist Ian Adams' article 'The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack' was published in MacLean's in 1967. It was one of the first opportunities for non-Aboriginal Canadians to read about the experiences of First Nations children in residential schools. The article also paints a picture of the racially-divided town of Kenora where Charlie Wenjack attended school.

Colin Wasacase

Colin Wasacase took over as principal at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora in 1966, the year Charlie Wenjack died. "The time of loneliness due to our beautiful fall made many of our children play truant. As the cold weather drew nearer it lessened but we had one unfortunate incident. It was the loss of life of one of our twelve year old lads due to exposure," Wasacase wrote in his annual report to the Presbyterian Church Missions, which ran the school. "The truancy was due to a lot of strangers and as we mentioned before, the beautiful weather. The supervisors were new and so were we, so the children really were bewildered by all of us strangers."

Colin Wasacase is Cree from Saskatchewan. He attended a residential school there as a child. He continues to live in Kenora. Wasacase refused CBC's request for an interview about Charlie Wenjack.

Seeking Answers

Charlie Wenjack's sister Pearl Achneepineskum, says residential school students were often dressed in special clothes and told to smile for photos like this one taken on the playground at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora. Achneepineskum says the photos never captured the abuse many children suffered there.

She believes 12-year-old Charlie was sexually assaulted, prompting him to run away from the school and die of exposure. Achneepineskum and others are asking for a new, more thorough investigation into Charlie's death.

Moving Forward

Tragedies for First Nations students aren't limited to the past. Students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school in Thunder Bay gather each year at the riverside to honour seven of their peers who have died tragically. The teenagers must leave their tiny communities where there are no high schools and board with families in the city.

First Nations-run schools like Dennis Franklin Cromarty receive about 40 per cent less money per student than schools funded by the province.

[Some materials provided by The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives]

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