Tragically needed: Gordon Downie’s ode to residential schools
author: terra murray | contributor
I have loved The Tragically Hip for as long as I can remember: from memories of my father singing along to “New Orleans Is Sinking” in the car, or waking up to “Courage” on Sunday mornings. When I saw them live for the first time, I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.
The Hip and lead singer Gord Downie have always chosen to tell the uncomfortable truths about our country; although, I’m not so sure that everyone understands the lyrics. Downie’s recent cancer diagnosis has granted the singer a huge platform from which to release his graphic novel, Secret Path. With the support of the Wenjack family, the book was written by Gordon Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died of hunger and exposure while trying to walk back home from a residential school. Proceeds from the book’s sales will go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the animated version of the graphic novel was broadcasted by the CBC on Oct. 23.
I have always been proud to be Canadian, but recently I’ve been questioning the things I’ve been taught about my country. I’m ashamed that it has taken nearly an entire university degree for me to begin looking critically at my history and those who wrote it. I’m told that newer generations of Canadians are learning about treaties and residential schools, which reassures me that we’re on the right track. I’ve heard a lot of excuses about colonialism, but we’re beyond excuses.
Secret Path presents Wenjack’s story and fosters empathy in a way that statistics and reports can’t. It really doesn’t matter if you weren’t personally involved in the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes because we’re so far beyond shifting the blame – or at least, we should be. We can’t afford to blame our ancestors for residential schools when we still retain colonial attitudes that hold our country back from what it could be. We need to remember the pain we caused in past as we move forward together so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.
Downie is certainly not the first person to try to inspire change, and it’s a problem that we aren’t listening to Indigenous voices on a larger scale; however, he has created space for dialogue where there was none. Secret Path is an accessible way to communicate this shameful part of our history – and Downie has the attention of an audience who needs to hear this story most. The graphic novel is interspersed with lyrics and comes with a code to download the songs – so even if you don’t read, there are pictures, and even if you don’t look at the pictures, there’s music.
Gord Downie is not Canada’s saviour, and I don’t think he’s trying to be. He’s bringing attention to an issue that many Canadians already care about. The difference is in the publicity that he’s bringing with him this time around. This isn’t a problem that we’re going to fix overnight because there are too many pieces to pick up, but projects like Secret Path will help. Chanie’s story was a reality for so many children and this isn’t something that we have the right to cover up or attempt to justify.
Gord Downie isn’t the singular catalyst for change in this country, but if his project can convince even one person to look into Canadian history and how we’ve arrived at this point, it will be worth it. People listen to Downie: during the Kingston concert also broadcast by the CBC, he was able to connect with thousands of Canadians on a topic that is usually met with defensive arguments. Downie has hope for this country, but it’s our job to follow through on what he’s calling for.
We need Secret Path because it took the terminal cancer diagnosis of one of Canada’s beloved songwriters to get this many people to listen. We need Secret Path because I have heard from a student who is my age; “We’ve given them enough.” “Them,” of course, being Aboriginal people, and “enough” referring to money and apologies. Because we can’t be “us” and “them” anymore; we’re better than this.