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.