In 2016, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie shocked fans when he announced he had terminal brain cancer, and later in the year the band set out on a cross-country tour. Broadcast nationwide, their final Kingston concert was a moment fans won't soon forget.
Downie also released Secret Path that year, an album about Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwa boy who died trying to walk home after escaping a northern Ontario residential school. He never got there.
The album won two Juno Awards in 2017, for adult alternative album of the year and recording package of the year. Downie won songwriter of the year for the songs “The Stranger,” “The Only Place to Be” and “Son.” Secret Path also won accolades from Indigenous communities for shedding light on the legacy of residential schools and racism in Canada.
The album is one of this year's Polaris Music Prize nominees, and over the next several weeks, we're sharing five things you might not know about each one. Here are five things about Secret Path.
1. Secret Path began as 10 poems inspired by a 1967 magazine article
Initially, Downie wrote Secret Path as 10 poems, inspired by Wenjack's story, and how he died running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont., in October, 1966. Wenjack began walking home, not realizing his family lived more than 400 miles away. He died alone from exposure and hunger next to a CNR railroad track. Downie first heard of Wenjack’s story from Downie's brother Mike, who showed him a 1967 Maclean’s magazine article called “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.”
2. Downie was accompanied by some well-known friends
All of the vocals and guitar parts were written by Downie; all other instrumentation was by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin. Charles Spearin and Ohad Benchetrit of BSS and Do Make Say Think, Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies, and Dave “Billy Ray” Koster also performed on the album. It was recorded over two sessions at the Bathouse in Bath, Ont., during November and December 2013. The album was accompanied by a graphic novel, also called Secret Path, which was written by Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. An animated film version also aired on CBC-TV.
3. All proceeds from the album and book are being donated to help fund truth and reconciliation
Proceeds from the sale of Secret Path are going to the Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which was created to ensure the dark legacy of the residential school system is never forgotten.
“We are hoping to bridge the gap, ultimately, between us and them,” said Downie in a CBC interview. “The weird thing is I think everybody in this country cares about this. That's not me being prophetic. I think it's true. I think it bugs everybody a little bit deep inside. Why can't we do anything? Because it's really frigging big and huge and impossible to imagine. But it could be just such a first great attempt from us.”
4. In advance of the release, Downie visited Wenjack’s sister
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, accompanied Downie when he visited the home of Chanie’s sister, Pearl Achneepineskum. “It’s historic, in many ways,” Fiddler said of Downie’s trip to the Northern Ontario community, and his commemoration of the young boy who had died nearly half a century before. “The money and funds are secondary. Just the fact that he is taking the time and the energy to come up here and the significance of his visit to the family is quite extraordinary.”
Achneepineskum, who fought her entire life to keep her brother's story alive, saw the project as intervention from the universe. "The creator moves mountains, and that's how Gord came to read the magazine story about my brother. He wanted to do something meaningful," she said on CBC's Metro Morning. Achneepineskum said when she first saw the Secret Path film, she "stood there crying throughout the whole process."
5. Downie wants Canadians to 'do something'
Rather than continuing to ignore the racism, poverty and colonialism that Indigenous peoples face in Canada, Downie hopes the album will help spur more Canadians to action.
“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,’" quoted Downie in a statement.
“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.'"
Watch the full Secret Path video here:
More to explore: