Gord Downie’s last tour with the Tragically Hip was far from his last act. The singer and Canadian music icon has partnered with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba to pay tribute to the thousands of indigenous children who went missing in the residential school system and who died without a decent burial.
In October, Mr. Downie launched a multimedia project and fundraising effort called Secret Path, encompassing a solo album, two concerts, a graphic novel and an animated film. At the centre is the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who, in 1966, was found frozen near railway tracks after running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in northwestern Ontario. The Secret Path graphic novel Mr. Downie wrote with comics artist Jeff Lemire was published on October 18, and a film based on the book was broadcast by the CBC on October 23 (you can stream it if you missed it). That was also the day Chanie’s body was found 50 years ago.
In a public statement, Mr. Downie says he is haunted by Chanie’s story, which he believes to be a story about Canada: “We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written.”
Mr. Downie, who earlier this year revealed he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, will donate proceeds from the sale of Secret Path to an NCTR fund he created that is dedicated to finding missing indigenous children and unmarked burials. The partnership is a boon to the centre’s efforts to preserve records of Indian residential schools and support indigenous communities wishing to commemorate children who died attending the schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its final report, was able to verify 3,200 school deaths. The TRC also described cemeteries for students as having become mostly “abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to accidental disturbance.”
“One of the big pieces of work that still needs to happen in this country is around commemoration, identification and respectful honouring of the kids that never made it home from those schools,” says NCTR director Ry Moran. “When you have someone like Gord, who’s one of the most prominent Canadians ever to have lent their voice to the call for truth and reconciliation in this country, it really helps bring the story to people who perhaps have not been engaged with this history.”
He adds that the NCTR aims to foster a national network of institutional partners, which is underway with a commitment from the University of British Columbia to open an affiliate centre in 2017-18. The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre will focus on the experiences of indigenous people in B.C., providing access to records for residential school survivors and their families. It is also designed as a place of dialogue among students, visitors and indigenous communities.