Knowing what we know about Gord Downie, and what has been happening in his universe, the Tragically Hip‘s Man Machine Poem tour was at the same time a joyous and heart-wrenching experience. What may be his final creative project is, for the most part, one of those things.
Some of Canada’s best musicians — Dave Hamelin, Kevin Drew and Charlie Spearin of Broken Social Scene, the Barenaked Ladies‘ Kevin Hearn and Skydiggers‘ Josh Finlayson — joined Gord in Peterborough recently to rehearse Secret Path, ahead of its first performance at the National Arts Centre. The collection of songs was written by Gord, Kevin and Dave, and is accompanied by an animated film based on Jeff Lemire‘s graphic novel. The project recounts the impossibly sad tale of Chanie Wenjack, a 12 year old Ojibwa boy who ran away from a residential school in 1966 and died of exposure and hunger beside the railroad tracks — fifty years ago yesterday. He had been trying to walk back to his family, having no idea that his home was 600 kilometers away.
Gord’s brother Mike stumbled across the Chanie Wenjack story in a documentary about three years ago, and was stunned by it. He was aware of residential schools, but, like most Canadians, hardly knew anything about them, and after he began doing some more research, he came upon a MacLean’s story from 1967 dealing with Chanie’s death, and related it to his novelist friend Joseph Boyden, with the aim of collaborating on a screenplay. In turn, Boyden talked about it to his friend Gord, and the ball was rolling.
Gord began writing poems about Chanie’s long and ultimately doomed walk along the tracks. Eventually they morphed into songs, were recorded by Kevin Drew and the band, and later were accompanied by Lemire’s graphic novel. The whole package then led to an animated film version of the book.
Says Gord, “I didn’t know there were residential schools up there until 12 years ago.” As he dug deeper into the history, he began to question the fact that he didn’t know more about them, and why they weren’t part of school curricula. As he puts it, one would think that a 10,000 year old indigenous culture would make Canada unique. But rather, “we decided to put them away in a third-floor bedroom and lock it. It’s just baffling to me. You start looking at all this stuff, and it does start putting a damper on all the stuff we’re doing to celebrate 150 years of nationhood.”
Secret Path is Gord’s effort to make a difference during the indeterminate time he has left. “If this is the last thing I do,” he says, “then I’m happy.” At this point, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel: the film collected $3 million in major donations upon opening, and since the film’s premiere, it’s raised a further $100,000, with the average donation running around $8.
You can read more about Secret Path, hear and see some of it, and order it in various configurations, over here. All proceeds will be directed to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at The University of Manitoba.