Facing Up to Canada’s Colonial History in Gord Downie’s “Secret Path”

Erstwhile contributing editor Graeme Pente explores the implications of a new Canadian multimedia project that encourages the country to confront its colonial history with the region’s First Peoples.

You don’t make a dent / In indifference / Ya gotta haunt them, haunt them, haunt them  — Gord Downie, Secret Path (2016)

The graphic novel is the size of a vinyl record album. It’s a fitting shape from which a rock star tells a story. In May 2016, Gord Downie, the lead singer of one of Canada’s most popular bands, announced that he was terminally ill with an aggressive brain cancer. After a tear-soaked final tour across Canada, the beloved lyricist turned his sights to finishing a multimedia project several years in the making. Secret Path is a ten-song solo album, a graphic novel, and an animated film that tells the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Native boy who died of exposure while fleeing an Ontario residential school in 1966.

Residential schools represented the Canadian government’s systematic attempt to destroy Indigenous cultures. Government and religious officers developed the school system in the latter half of the nineteenth century alongside similar institutions in the United States where the objective was to “kill the Indian, and save the man,” as one American official put it. The idea was to remove Native children from their family life and forcibly integrate them into Canadian culture by severing the intergenerational connections that allow parents to pass down traditions. Churches assisted in the execution of this government policy, and religious figures staffed many of the schools. The government closed the last Canadian residential school in 1996. By then, some 150,000 aboriginal children across several generations had gone through the system. In the course of decades, many children fled the schools in attempts to reunite with their families. They suffered frostbite and some, such as Chanie, died simply because they wanted to go home.

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Artist Jeff Lemire used almost no text in the graphic novel Secret Path, instead allowing the accompanying album to buoy his powerful images with words.

The Secret Path graphic novel stands out for a number of reasons. It is unique because the reader is meant to listen to the accompanying album while looking at the images. With the music telling Chanie’s story, the book is almost entirely devoid of text. The lyrics mark the beginning of each new song, and stunning visuals—by Toronto artist Jeff Lemire—bring the songs to life. This absence of text makes the reader feel one step further removed from Chanie (who, himself, had little command of English). Trying to embody Chanie’s perspective, Downie sings on the opening track, “And what I’m feeling / Is anyone’s guess.” Even the handful of speech bubbles only depict scenes to convey the message of the speaker. The result is in effect a language barrier between the reader and Chanie. To understand what he went through, many of us need a good dose of imagination.

Lemire’s colour pallet is all blues, greys, white, and black—a collection of hues intended to haunt the reader. They render the Canadian north as a truly stark, forbidding place. The cold that killed Chanie comes off the page. Drawings of the school interior bring out its clinical and institutional nature. The heads of the priests and nuns who run the school remain outside the panels, so the reader shares the perspective of the children, their eyes downcast. As the priests and nuns shear the boys’ hair and submit them to collective showers, the school takes on the contours of a prison. The reader understands—feels—Chanie’s desire to escape.

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Lemire’s colour pallet gives Chanie’s world a singular starkness, whether the bitter cold of the Canadian north or its institutional analog.

Lemire uses other colours—warm oranges and yellows, earthy browns and greens—only when Chanie recalls his home and his family. Indeed, memory plays a crucial role in the story. The album begins and ends with Chanie’s solitary walk, ultimately to his death, along a railroad track. Peppered throughout, though, are memories of his time at the residential school, time spent with his father and family, the moment of his flight, and so on. As Chanie drops from exhaustion at the end of his journey, Lemire depicts Chanie’s memories flowing out behind him.

The main thrust of Downie’s message is the importance of remembering Chanie and the over 100,000 other Native children like him who suffered under the residential school system. Downie intones in his statement on the project: “[Chanie’s] story is Canada’s story.” And we ignore it at our peril. In 1967, the year after Chanie died, Maclean’s Magazine ran a story on the boy’s tragic fate and its aftermath. The author pointed out the uncomfortable contrast between Chanie’s fate and the rest of Canadian society. Chanie had “died from exposure and hunger… just four-and-a-half feet from the trains that carry the white world by in warm and well-fed comfort.” The jury that heard the magistrate court’s inquiry into the boy’s death openly questioned the rectitude of the residential schools. But their doors would stay open for another thirty years.

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Lemire depicts Chanie’s memories flooding out of him in his final moments. Memory forms a crucial component of the story in Secret Path as well as its broader political project.

Last week, Erstwhile contributing editor Julia Frankenbach wrote beautifully on the importance of expanding our national literary “canons” to include the diverse voices and perspectives that compose our countries. She reminded us that “literature is a key cultural component of memory.” Secret Path warrants a place in Canada’s pantheon of literary greats. It is a powerful call to remember residential schools, to confront Canada’s colonial past, and to grapple with what the government has done in its people’s name. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired the Secret Path animated film on October 23, reaching tens of thousands of Canadians and exposing many of them for the first time to this shameful piece of the country’s past. An hour-long discussion with Indigenous artists and critics followed. During it, CBC critic Jesse Wente noted that “Canada does not have a history of listening to Indigenous people. That’s true of both Canada and the United States.” He expressed his frustration that Native people and artists have been speaking out about the residential school system for a long time to no avail. He went on: “maybe Canada needs someone like Gord Downie to tell them for them to actually pay attention, and while I wish that weren’t true, if it takes a rock star to move us in this path… then good.”

In her piece, Frankenbach reflected that a literary canon expresses “what a society considers to be its defining struggles” and that reading diverse authors will help us “to challenge falsehoods concerning our collective heritage.” The next step for people learning about the residential school system, whether in its Canadian or American incarnations, is to begin listening to the voices of Native artists, to hear—truly hear—the struggles facing their communities. Downie is not a Native artist, but hopefully his own artistry will serve as a window into the rich and vibrant conversations taking place in Indigenous communities across the Americas. Those of us who have benefitted (almost always unconsciously at this point) from the colonial relationship must recognize and accept that the struggles of these communities are our own struggles, too. Indeed, listening at long last to the diverse voices that compose our nation-states will give us a better sense of ourselves. Maclean’s recently published an article entitled “The North and the Great Canadian Lie” in which the author lays bare the vast distance between Canadian rhetoric of being a northern country and the neglect Canada shows toward its proper northland, mostly inhabited by Indigenous peoples. If we finally begin to listen to their voices, we may at last do right by them and fulfill our obligations to these diverse peoples with whom we share the land.

Listening to Indigenous voices constitutes a broader necessity in this dire moment of changing global climate. Native peoples are often on the front lines of resistance to fossil fuel projects, especially new oil pipelines, that threaten our shared lands and water supplies—whether in North Dakota or British Columbia. It is a testament to the resilience of these communities that those who have been beaten the most are still the first to stand up. We must stand with them.

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One thought on “Facing Up to Canada’s Colonial History in Gord Downie’s “Secret Path”

  1. Pingback: Indigenous History with Erstwhile | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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