You may have noticed there was a day this summer when Canada “went dark.” It was August 20th, the day the Tragically Hip performed for the last time. Hip lead singer, front man extraordinaire, Canadian superstar Gord Downie had recently announced that he had a brain tumour and was terminally ill. Since making music has always been his passion, he and the Hip went on a farewell tour and despite the ravages of cancer, he performed full-throttle at each and every show, somehow finding the energy and the courage to power through. Their final date was in their hometown of Kingston Ontario, just a little ways down the road from Ottawa. Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was in the front row, and spoke for all of Canada when he thanked Gord and the whole band for their decades of artistic serviced to the country. It was a stirring night. The end is coming for Gord and he knew it, you could see it in his eyes, feel it every time he was overcome by emotion, but instead of making it about him, he chose to use this spotlight (and believe me, about 32 out of our 33 million strong population were tuned in one way or another) to speak on behalf of Canada’s indigenous population.
Since that night, as Downie inches closer to his final days, he’s still pouring his last energies into speaking up for our Aboriginal people. His latest endeavor is a tribute to Chanie Wenjack – in music, graphic novel, and animated form. 10 poems were turned into an album, which was turned into a graphic novel, which was turned into an animated film. They all tell the story of one boy, who represents the many, many more just like him, our first nations children ripped from the arms of their mothers, out of their communities, and into residential schools. Residential schools were run by church and state with the sole purpose of ‘civilizing’ the savages. Prohibited from speaking their languages, practicing their spirituality, or honouring their cultures, teachers stripped them of their identity. Many children suffered terrible abuse, but all of these kids were deprived of their childhoods, and all of the families suffered terribly as I’m sure you would if your child was removed, perhaps never to be seen again, or if you were lucky enough to be reunited, we can only hope that you can find a common language in which to communicate. Communities were destroyed in what many Aboriginal people refer to as a genocide. It’s a dark part of Canadian history that wasn’t acknowledged until very recently. Today our First Nations peoples often live in poverty and other consequences of this intergenerational tragedy. Healing is not an Aboriginal problem, it’s something we need to address as an entire country. Gord Downie is doing his part.
If you are so inclined, The Secret Path can be streamed here for free (or in fact, down below). I hope you take the time to do so, and to share it with a friend. The images are haunting, but the lyrics will punch you in the gut. I was in tears by the third track.
Chanie Wenjack was only 12 years old when residential school became unbearable to him and he tried to find his way home. Not knowing where he was or where he was going, he walked until he collapsed in the snow, tired, lonely, starving, and he died. But there are dozens and hundreds and maybe even thousands of Chanies dotting our countryside. Lonely and miserable, many children made an escape an attempt only to lose digits or limbs to frostbite, arms and legs on traintracks, or lives to exposure, or to punishment when recaputured. How many tiny bodies are still unaccounted for? The fact that we don’t even know is proof of how little white Canada cared for Aboriginal people, and this is a guilty fact we struggle to reconcile even today.
One day, likely sooner than later, Gord Downie will die and our whole country will mourn a great man, and a good man too. But Downie’s using his last work, and his last breaths to remind us that there are many others worth mourning too.
[As great and heartfelt as Gord Downie’s work is, it’s also really great to hear from Aboriginal artists themselves. Check out our coverage of the ImagineNative film fest]