The Secret Path, residential schools and reconciliation

The Department of Linguistics and the Certificate Program in Native American Indian Studies will present on Weds. Nov. 28th at 4:30 in ILC S240 a showing of Gord Downie‘s The Secret Path. This film uses music and animation to tell the story of an Ojibwe boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died after he escaped the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and tried to return to his home in northern Ontario in October 1966.

Come learn about indigenous people’s history that you probably weren’t taught in school. Labrador Inuk Ella Alkiewicz, a UMass Amherst alumna, will share before the film – see this section of her thesis on residential boarding schools. Executive Producer Patrick Downie will discuss the Gord Downie-Chanie Wenjack Fund and take questions during a catered reception after the film, at about 6 pm.

The showing is co-sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Communications, History, and Sociology, BDIC, the Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies, and WMUA.

This rest of this page has a brief overview, and links to further information on the film, the residential school system, and reconciliation efforts currently underway.

The Secret Path

The film originated as a set of poems written by Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip), which he later turned into the 10 songs featured in the film in collaboration with Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene). Jeff Lemire collaborated with Downie on the creation of a graphic novel, which along with the music was the inspiration for the production of the film. It was broadcast by the CBC on October 23rd, 2016, on the 50th anniversary of Chanie Wenjack’s death. The broadcast also included a short introduction with Chanie’s sister Pearl Wenjack and other family members in conversation with Gord Downie, and was followed by the Road to Reconciliation panel discussion. The entire broadcast can be streamed from YouTube.

The residential school system and reconciliation efforts

From the Wikipedia page on the Canadian residential school system:

In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples. The network was funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created for the purpose of removing children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system’s more than hundred-year existence, about 30% of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally. The number of school related deaths remains unknown due to an incomplete historical record, though estimates range from 3,200 upwards of 6,000.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse, and forcibly enfranchising them. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated unable to fit into either their communities or Canadian society. It ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the House of Commons of Canada. Nine days prior, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the schools…In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the publication of a multi-volume report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. The TRC report found that the school system amounted to cultural genocide.

Labrador Inuk Ella Alkiewicz, MFA adds this further note (Oct. 31, 2018):

On Nov. 24, 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of the Government of Canada to the thousand Inuit, Innu and Métis residential boarding school survivors of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. PM Harper neglected to include the survivors from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008.

Further information about the residential school system, including first-person testimonies, can be found at the above-linked National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website. Another good source of information about residential schools and reconciliation efforts is the CBC’s Beyond 94 website, which tracks progress on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls for action. A teacher’s guide is also available. Another source of teaching resources is the “Stolen Lives” educational program, whose section on “language loss” includes Theodore Fontaine’s account of being punished for speaking Ojibwe.

The Secret Path and reconciliation efforts

Gord Downie saw the Secret Path as contributing to work on reconciliation. The following is from his Sept. 9th 2016 statement about the project:

Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. “White” Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it; it was hardly ever mentioned.

All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.

I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said, “This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, that they were heathens and savages and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well…They need to know that history includes them.” (Murray Sinclair, Ottawa Citizen, May 24, 2015)

I have always wondered why, even as a kid, I never thought of Canada as a country – It’s not a popular thought; you keep it to yourself – I never wrote of it as so. The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, “Canada.”

At the time of the release of the Secret Path book and film, Downie was very much in the media spotlight, and he chose to redirect that light on to Chanie Wenjack’s story, and native issues more generally. He had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer,  which he announced shortly before a cross-Canada tour with the Tragically Hip. At the last concert of the tour in Kingston on August 20th 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau was in attendance, and Downie called on him, and the audience, to continue to work with the First Nations people on reconciliation.

Downie died a little more than a year after that concert (Washington Post obituary), and devoted much of the intervening time to this work. Shortly after the concert Downie visited with the Wenjack family, as documented in the introduction to the CBC broadcast of the Secret Path. His final concert was a performance of the Secret Path at Roy Thompson Hall on Oct. 21 2016, which was attended by members of the Wenjack family, who joined the Downie family onstage. The Downie and Wenjack families have together formed the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, whose goal is “to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story and to aid our collective reconciliation journey through awareness, education, and action”.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde presents Gord Downie with an eagle feather while he is honoured at the AFN special assembly in Dec. 2016 (Margo McDiarmid/CBC News)