Who was Chanie Wenjack? The First Nations child behind Gord Downie’s new solo album
Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie revealed Friday he will release a new solo album in October inspired by the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old First Nations child who died while fleeing a northern Ontario residential school some 50 years ago.
The new album, titled “Secret Path,” is dedicated to the Ojibway boy, who died from hunger and exposure a week after running away from the school near Kenora, Ont.
“I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him,” wrote Downie in a statement released Friday. “Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were.”
Downie said he learned of Wenjack and the boy’s tragic death after the singer’s brother shared with him a 1967 article from Maclean’s magazine dubbed “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack” by Ian Adams.
In the article, the writer details how the child was forced from his home and sent away to a federal government-funded, church-run residential school some 600 kilometres from his family.
Wenjack was nine when he was sent to Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School where some 150 other First Nations children lived.
Adams’ article details how on one afternoon in October, Wenjack and two of his friends spontaneously decided to run away from the school. His friends had apparently fled from the school in the past.
Over the course of two days, the threesome made their way to a cabin to meet with the uncle of one Wenjack’s friends. As days passed, Wenjack decided to up and leave his friends and the other relatives at the cabin and head home to see his father.
According to Adams, the boy died 36 hours after leaving the cabin and one week after fleeing the school.
“At 11:20 a.m. on Sunday, October 23, engineer Elwood McIvor was bringing a freight train west through the rock cut near Farlane … he saw Charlie’s body lying beside the track,” Adams wrote.
The writer describes how he saw police photos of the child showing the “thin, crumpled body of a twelve-year-old boy with a sharp-featured face.”
“He is lying on his back, and his thin cotton clothing is obviously soaked. His feet, encased in ankle-high leather boots, are oddly turned inward,” Adams described.
Wenjack’s death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of indigenous children in residential schools, where students were subjected to abuse, neglect and “reprogramming” that has since been deemed cultural genocide.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found more than 300 children died and thousands were physically and sexually abused at residential schools. There were 18 residential schools for indigenous children in Ontario alone. The last one didn’t close until 1991.
“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,” Downie said in a statement. “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.”
Earlier this year, Heritage Minutes released a new public service address entitled “Chanie Wenjack” highlighting the child’s tragedy. The minute feature was released to coincide with National Aboriginal Day and was narrated Wenjack’s sister.
“I survived residential school,” says Pearl Achneepineskum. “My brother Chanie did not.”
In 2008, then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government for the multi-generational upheaval caused by residential schools.
In May, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized to First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities for the “brutalities” suffered at residential schools, calling it one of the most “shameful chapters” in Canada’s history.
“’White’ Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it; it was hardly ever mentioned,” Downie said.
– With files from Nicole Bogart and Leslie Young
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