Chanie Wenjack is easily the most important story of 2016.
Chanie was a 12-year-old boy who froze to death while escaping the Cecilia Jeffry Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario in the mid- 1960s. Chanie, whose teachers misnamed him Charlie, knew his home was somewhere north along the railway tracks. He didn’t know it was 400 miles away.
Chanie Wenjack’s story was first told in a MacLean’s magazine article in 1967, and was the catalyst for the first public inquiry into residential schools, the last of which didn’t close until 1996.
Do enough Canadians know his story? Singer Gord Downie doesn’t think so. After his brother Mike showed him a copy of the MacLean’s article in 2014, Downie set about making Wenjack’s story an instant part of Canadian history. He did so by writing an album called The Secret Path, and encouraged other artists to create projects about Wenjack.
Jeff Lemire wrote an accompanying graphic novel to Downie’s album; Terril Calder created an animated film; and Joseph Boyden wrote a Heritage Minute, and the recently released novella Wenjack.
Downie wants Canada to know that this isn’t just aboriginal history. This is Canadian history. And it’s time that every Canadian learned about the darker side of our history.
My family was living in Kenora the year Chanie Wenjack went missing, and as a child, we returned to Kenora every summer. But until Downie’s art project, I had never heard of Chanie Wenjack nor made a connection between the Cecilia Jeffry Indian School and the aboriginal people I saw living on the streets of Kenora.
I’m ashamed that my education didn’t include the truth about residential schools in Kenora, across Canada, and here at home in Penticton. From 1870 to 1996, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were removed from their families in an attempted cultural genocide. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has gathered 6,000 names of children who died, but it is feared that five times that number actually perished in residential schools.
I’m grateful that the history of residential schools is starting to be taught in our B.C. school curriculum, and that Gord Downie is devoting his final days to the cause of truth and reconciliation. This is the story of 2016, and we need to keep telling it. Visit Gord Downie’s secretpath.ca to find out more.