Being one of Canada’s biggest bands, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves when The Tragically Hip announced frontman, Gord Downie, had terminal Brain Cancer in May of this year.
Anually, the Canadian Press crowns a ‘Canadian Newsmaker of the Year’ and Gord Downie is the follow up to Justin Trudeau’s 2015 selection.
After releasing Man Machine Poem, the band embarked on an emotional, exhausting tour across the country connecting with new and old fans. Gord Downie had a purpose in mind other than entertainment; education. By the time the tour ended, Gord Downie had already announced what he’d be working on next – a legacy project titled The Secret Path, as he set out on quest to turn Canadian’s attention towards a problem hiding deep in our history.
Known as one of the most private men in the music industry, this interview with Peter Mansbridge on The National gave us some answers about his terminal illness and the origins of his project working towards truth and reconciliation. It’s amazing that this man, struggling to remember Peter Mansbridge’s name (who he’s known for 25 years), still managed to speak so eloquently about his passion for this country and the people in it, all of them.
Gord Downie began Secret Path as ten poems, incited by the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve year-old boy who died in flight from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, fifty years ago, walking home to the family he was taken from over 400 miles away. Gord was introduced to Chanie Wenjack (miscalled “Charlie” by his teachers) by Mike Downie, his brother, who shared with him Ian Adams’ Maclean’s story from February 6, 1967, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack.”
The stories Gord’s poems tell were fleshed into the ten songs of Secret Path with producers Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin. Recording took place over two sessions at The Bathouse Recording Studios in Bath, Ontario, November and December 2013. The music features Downie on vocals and guitars, with Drew and Hamelin playing all other instruments. Guest musicians include Charles Spearin (bass), Ohad Benchetrit (lap steel/guitar), Kevin Hearn (piano), and Dave “Billy Ray” Koster (drums).
In winter 2014, Gord and Mike brought the recently finished Secret Path music to graphic novelist Jeff Lemire for his help illustrating Chanie Wenjack’s story, bringing him and the many children like him to life.
Proceeds from Secret Path will be donated to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at The University of Manitoba. The NCTR is dedicated to preserving the history of the residential schools in Canada, making this history known, and moving our country forward on the path of reconciliation.
Secret Path acknowledges a dark part of Canada’s history – the long-suppressed mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the residential school system – with the hope of starting our country on a road to reconciliation. Every year as we remember Chanie Wenjack, the hope for Secret Path is that it educates all Canadians young and old on this omitted part of our history, urging our entire nation to play an active role in the preservation of Indigenous lives and culture in Canada.
Jeff Lemire shares insight on Secret Path:
I first met Gord Downie and his brother Mike back in the winter of 2014. They wanted to discuss a potential project and, over coffee, they told me the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack. Gord was then in the final stages of recording his incredible songs based on Chanie’s life and he shared the rough mixes with me in the hopes that I would be interested in creating a graphic novel to accompany his album. Before we left the coffee shop I knew I was going to do it. I had to. Chanie’s story is one that will not let you go once you hear it. It’s a story that can’t be ignored. And yet, somehow, it has been ignored. By nearly all of us.
Growing up white in Southern Ontario, I never learned about Chanie Wenjack or about any of the tens of thousands of other indigenous children like him who were part of Canada’s residential school system. This is such a massive part of our country’s history, yet our schools didn’t teach us about it. Why? Maybe because it’s easier to live with ourselves if we pretend stories like Chanie’s never happened. But they did happen, and still happen. Chanie Wenjack lived and died, and no one knows his story.
I’ve spent the last three years living with Chanie’s story and living inside Gord’s music. Gord’s haunting songs introduced me to Chanie Wenjack. Music is universal. It crosses languages and cultures and speaks to everyone, and I’ve always felt the medium of comics could do the same. It’s our hope that one day Secret Path will be taught in schools and that it will help to shed a light on this all too often ignored part of Canada’s past. I think, above all else, that’s what Gord and I wanted to create: something that can’t be ignored. Every Canadian should know Chanie Wenjack’s name and I hope Secret Path helps to make that a reality.
Tragically Hip frontman, Gord Downie was honoured for his work on reconciliation by the Assembly of First Nations chiefs in a special hunka ceremony. From our friends at Global News:
In admiration of a man struggling to maintain brain function this year, it is amazing what he has accomplished on and off the stage. Well deserved, Gord.