I won’t re-state what’s happened to Gord. If you’re Canadian, you most likely already know. If not, no judgments… just take a look at the heartbreaking coverage of his sit-down with longtime friend and CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge.
I watched, more like studied this interview looking for some real insights into how Gord might be doing. You know, those little moments where a person opens up, really opens up and says something unmistakably honest? I found something when Gord spoke about how he approached his performance throughout the final tour. In a moment, he mimics the exact expression he used so often on stage. It was all part of his best attempt at giving us a show, and he certainly did. The Hip were at their best, and that’s how we’ll always remember them. This tour became a beautiful farewell built from the blood, sweat, and tears of Gord, his family, and all those that surrounded him in those torturous times. If you were fortunate enough to see one of these shows, then you know just how special of a moment was created here.
In my recent posts, I’ve been writing about music; my listening habits and some of my favourite venues. But now I’d like to dig a little deeper. This time, I’m focusing on the message. Music is powerful and Gord knows it. He’s used it as a means to spread a message very near and dear to him. I’m talking about the tragic events involving Canadian residential schools, and specifically, Gord’s connection to Charlie Wenjack.
For some of us, it’s first-hand. We remember those dark days or maybe we even have a direct connection to family or friends. For most, however, these haunting facts have become nothing more than stories passed on by family members or hollow lessons in school. The first time I really learned about what happened in the residential school system was during my second year of university, in a Canadian Studies class. Far too late, if you ask me. For years I was mostly unaware of how serious these events were; how it might actually feel to have loved and lost someone to such discrimination. The fact is, that I – like many Canadians – am too late in paying attention to an issue that has affected Canadians not only then, but still today.
Chanie Wenjack was an Ojibwe First Nations boy who attended a residential school in Kenora, Ontario. He escaped the school (known as Cecilia Jeffery Residential School) in 1966 and tried to make his way home on foot. It was the dead of winter and Charlie lived over 400 miles away. He died at a nearby train track just a short way into his journey.
Gord’s message – which began as a series of poems before becoming songs – is told through an animated film titled The Secret Path. Artists Jeff Lemire’s illustrations bring to life the dark, desolate story of Charlie Wenjack as he wandered along the train tracks. After the songs, the video shows footage from Gord’s trip to meet Charlie’s sister Pearl (pictured below). Pearl shares painful memories of what it was like to lose her brother so young.
The video successfully portrays how Gord’s feelings about the tragic events that were forced upon Charlie. As he revisits the past you can really see the sadness that still lingers for Pearl and her family. As Gord shares these emotions, you can see how deeply involved he’s become. Now, his mission is to move forward and take action. For this, he’s placed his faith in our very own Prime Minister:
“He (Justin Trudeau) cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore. Trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s goin’ on up there. But what’s goin’ on up there ain’t good. Maybe even worse than it’s ever been. So it’s not on the improve but we’re gonna get it fixed. And we got the guy to do it. To start, to help.” (Full video)
Gord’s message is clear and very powerful. But the reality is, one man alone won’t be able to change something so systemic. It’s a matter of collective response and action. It’s on us to create more awareness and adapt to the needs of Canadian people that have been suffering for years from our country’s mistakes.
It’s something we should think about, and it’s something we must care about. As Canadians, these stories are undeniable facts about our country’s past. We shouldn’t have to wait for news headlines like Attawapiskat to act or to stir up the conversation. The effects of the residential school program are enduring time and have continued to negatively affect the lives of people in our country.
The first step, as I’ve taken myself, is to learn and understand. The Secret Path brings us a story featuring genuine Canadian people who live every day still feeling the effects of what happened 50 years ago. Watch it, and think about it. Because for all of the things we believe and love about our country, it’s clear that our past is not always so clean. It’s also important to remember that these events aren’t limited to Charlie Wenjack – there are many others who were victimized by the residential school system. As a Canadian, it’s easy to separate oneself from this tragedy because of the passing time or the cultural differences. The real challenge is to do something about it.
Proceeds from the sale of Secret Path go to The Gord Downie Secret Path fund for Truth and Reconciliation.
Find more information about Secret Path across Gord Downie’s social media: