The Secret Path, Reconciliation & Not-Reconciliation

Last night I watched Gord Downie perform The Secret Path in Ottawa. I was invited by one of the executive producers, and sat near the front with other guests. A Nēhiyaw senator sat ahead of me, an Inuk political leader in the seat behind. In fact the front rows seemed to be nearly exclusively Indigenous people, including the Wenjack family front and centre. Behind us, were predominately White Canadians.

Together we witnessed an event that was utterly devastating but at times also contrived.

There were three elements to the evening. There was the concert itself, the music written and performed by Downie, Kevin Drew, Kevin Hearne, among others. This took place against the backdrop of illustrator Jeff Lemire’s animated film. Finally, there was a post-concert epilogue led by Mike Downie and including a short video from Marten Falls.

The music was typical jangle-rock-growl Gord Downie but also melodic, and poetically crafted into the story of Charlie Wenjack’s flight from Cecelia Jeffrey residential school in 1966. Each track worked together to describe a boy alone at the end of the world, cannibals on his heels. On more than one song Downie uses the phrase “this earth-like world”, evoking Charlie’s landscape. It is a facsimile of the original. Here, settlers have arrived, consumed, and transformed/destroyed the familiar. But Downie blows on the ashes and embers that remain. Performing “Haunt Them” he stares down the crowd at The National Arts Centre and I imagined him thinking: you, yes you, deserve to be haunted.

It was pain, though, that was the predictable and over-arching theme of the show. As the music began and before Downie even opened his mouth I wanted to cry. This is a story after all of an 12-year old boy escaping his captors and attempting, failing, to walk an impossible 600 kilometers in the northern Ontario winter to be with his family again. While the pain is captured in the poetry and music, the animation drives it home, often uncomfortably. From the very first scenes, Charlie’s humanity is stripped away. It is difficult to watch and I have to wonder about the result if taken on by an Indigenous artist.

Going into the show, a concern for me was the chronic re-victimization that accompanies most discussions of residential school. I, and many of my peers, have a very difficult time talking about or teaching them in class. The trauma is not something you can slip in and out of. And the story told over and over traps us in a narrative of powerlessness and hopelessness. The concert would have replicated this trend were it not for the Wenjack family.

Before the performance started, the large group at the front were loud, joking and laughing. Meanwhile the crowd behind them was stoic and serious. When Downie sang and wailed, they did, too. They moved to the music in their seats. They cried, at times. And after the musicians left the stage and a short video began, showing the tall birch trees among boreal forest of Marten Falls, they raised their arms, whistled, and celebrated home. They did what the concert was unable to: they showed that they are not merely victims. When the end of the world came, they persevered and they endure today in the most inexplicably vivid ways.

In that video, Charlie’s sisters meet with Downie and they discuss the music, the project, and his cancer. They take him to Charlie’s grave. Towards the end, Charlie’s sister Pearl speaks to Canadians about the need for reasonable access to education for First Nation children. She wants a high school in every community to save the students from being forced to leave, like Charlie was. And unlike Charlie, perhaps saved from a lonely death, an all too-common occurrence in contemporary Canada.

After the music and the film and the short video, Gord Downie’s brother Mike came on stage to introduce all the people who made the project possible (including an advertisement for the corporate sponsors, energy and rail companies among them). Recognizing the contributions gave way to an uncomfortable editorializing of the show. It was proclaimed that we all just took our first giant step towards genuine reconciliation. For me, this reflected a sense of self-importance, which betrayed the spirit of much that came before it. The decision to determine and articulate what is and is not reconciliation belongs to survivors.

When Pearl finally got to speak, and sing a healing song – and she did so on a level equalling Downie – she finished by telling the crowd: “my father died not knowing why Charlie died. My Mother still does not know why.” After a silence someone in the middle of the theatre, perhaps inspired by the reconciliatory theme of the postscript shouted, “to bring us together!” In that moment I could not imagine a more grotesque thing to say, shocking and predictable at the same time. Because I suspect that individual would not, for one second, sacrifice their son or daughter for our unity. The capacity of some Canadians for reconciliation is often so clearly shallow.

Finally, there was time for closing words from Gord Downie, who hesitated at first and then leaned into the microphone, gifts from the community in his hands, and said, “it’s time to start, folks.” Its time for change, time to do the right things. There was never a greater understatement spoken in this country. Still, I believe it was genuine. For all the airy talk of national reconciliation, the concert ultimately felt singular to me. It was one man’s public apology. Or perhaps the Downie family’s, who are coming to terms with a different kind of of grief. But for their part, the Wenjacks accepted it with dignity.

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15 thoughts on “The Secret Path, Reconciliation & Not-Reconciliation

  1. Great summary, and I agree on the shout out of “to bring us together” as being unnecessary and idiotic. I’m not sure what motivated that person to need to be part of the grief on stage, or try and turn a heartbreaking and disgraceful story into a positive. I don’t think the point of the event was so we could leave the theater with a feeling of unity, it was to highlight just how far apart we are.

    I hope Gord can achieve many things with this project, a primary one being this period in our history becomes part of the school curriculum. My kids should learn about this in elementary school. Heck, I took “Canadian history” in university and only learned about Upper and Lower Canada and the French and English.

    Lastly, I know corporate sponsors have a role — but sometimes it’s OK to be a private sponsor….

  2. Really honest and beautiful write up taking into account so many perspectives but staying true to the most important ones, those of the boy the boy and his family. Very well put.

  3. The awkward White Canadian response is cringeworthy so much of the time. Hopefully as we get closer to the issues that will change to something more authentic and nuanced. I was reminded when I read this piece sitting in an audience at harbourfront listening to Inuit throatsinging young girls. The audience was stoicly listening but the throatsinging was joyous and hilarious – and yet the White folk remained silent til the end. I felt it was so patronizing and I wanted to scream EDUCATE YOURSELVES! That was about 25 years ago and only now are people actually trying to educate themselves and not expecting indigenous folk to do all the work for them. It is a long road. Thanks for writing this.

  4. Really appreciated this perspective, Hayden. There’s the strange turn when pathos turns to a grotesque currency, and I often wonder, with initiatives like this, as to who’s really reconciling? As you intimate, it’s a predictable pantomime, but one underpinned by something essential. The mirror can teach its own lessons, I suppose, and the more clearly Settlers see their own settler-brain revealed, maybe we’ll see some progress in practical ways. Anyway, a foggy place that you shined a light on.

  5. Ive been thinking about this so much, since the album/book/news has been in the media. As a white settler writer who engages carefully–well i try for carefully–with reconciliation, i paradoxically/hypocritically clench my teeth when other settlers do it too, afraid of what they’ll say! Like many other territories, it’s disputed–it is hard to cross, it is bloody, it is full of bones. The corporate sponsors; the whiteness; the other extraordinary graphic novel/story that has had so little media coverage because it doesn’t have Gord Downie attached to it (and, granted: that is not his fault; he’s doing what he’s doing, and I believe it’s sincere, as well as a profound parting gesture from this Earth)–that is Patti LaBoucane Benson and Kelly Mellings extraordinary and extraordinarily beautiful graphic novel The Outside Circle. Which is haunting for all the reasons you mentioned– because it has criminal history against Indigenous ppl alive in its pages–but also personally haunting–I know those people, those boys; I went to school with them; my brother became one of them, those gang/drug-entrapped boys who spent years in prison. It is confusing and painful and horrifically awkward. He was taught to carve in prison by a Cree man, a wonderful teacher–whose life had been so destroyed by his experiences in residential school. Really there is a sort of horror of speaking poorly or not speaking at all and it causes people to say stupid things. It causes people to be angry; sometimes I have spoken or written in ways that have made people so angry, so hurt. Silence, then? (And here I am, writing.) Yet, as the amazing community activist Jess Housty wrote to me just the other day from her Heiltsuk territory, contaminated by a diesel spill, “anger will only take me only part of the way. I hope that love with take me the distance.” (and I am NOT admonishing, at all; rather admiring her ability to declare this at such a painful time in her community.) Love. And distance. Thank you for this piece.

  6. This article was excellent ! I’ve been trying to put my thumb on this whole Downie Gord thing and you said it best. Sinciere yes, but misplaced. What hit home for me was this statement “The capacity of some Canadians for reconciliation is often so clearly shallow” . Thanks for your thoughts.. it’s exactly what I needed to hear.

  7. Thank you for your insights and sharing your experience. I watched The Secret Path on the TV special and I felt many of the same things you describe. When I began watching it, I was looking forward to some creative expression that may transcend individual/ego, culture, time and space and some of Downies lyrics came close but I felt it generally was all rather “stuck” in the sad, victimization, pity narrative (especially the images) rather than pointing to a way toward truth and healing for the Wenjack family and for all of us. To me, the aspects of the show that most resonated with honesty were the conversations with Charlie’s relatives. I completely agree and was grateful when his sister offered her call for all reserves to have high schools so that kids don’t have to leave. Thank you again for your insightful and thoughtful article.

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