Chanie Wenjack died 50 years ago this month: The Ojibwa boy froze by the side of Northern Ontario train tracks after running away from a residential school. Although his death resulted in Canada's first inquiry into the practice of removing indigenous children from their families, the 12-year-old's story isn't common knowledge. Now, a number of influential artists have adopted the story of Chanie – or Charlie, as he was called at school – as their own. Author Joseph Boyden wrote a Heritage Minute about the boy that was released earlier this summer and has just put out the slim but heart-wrenching novella Wenjack. Illustrated by Kent Monkman, the book sees the child's doomed journey witnessed by manitous, Anishinaabe spirits that have taken on animal forms. Denise Balkissoon spoke with Boyden about how he came upon the story, and what it was like to tell it.
Do you remember when you first heard about Chanie Wenjack?
Mike Downie, Gord Downie's brother, had brought to our attention an old Maclean's article, from 1967. Mike gave me the article and I was fascinated by it. I was like, "this kid rings a bell" and I realized that there was The Ballad of Charlie Wenjack by the great Indian singer Willie Dunn, a song that is very famous. I was like, "oh yeah, the little kid who ran away from school and died on the tracks because he didn't know that home was 400 miles away." Then Gord and Mike said, "the 50th anniversary of his passing is in 2016. Why don't we all go to our creative spaces and create something and all release our projects without saying anything to Canada?" So I sat down and wrote Wenjack. Gord has done this beautiful album, Secret Path, and Jeff Lemire is involved with the drawings; it's a graphic novel as well. Terril Calder, the Métis filmmaker, she's done a beautiful animated film about him. A Tribe Called Red was really into it, so they allowed me to do a couple of spoken word tracks on their new album. It's really this kind of big collaboration, a number of us all going to our creative corners and then coming together to put Charlie out into the world.
It sounds like you all decided, "Okay, this is becoming part of Canada's history right now."
It is a part of Canada's history. Why should only indigenous people know the darker side of our history? This kid Charlie, whose real name was Chanie, his teachers couldn't pronounce his name or they didn't care to, he's such a symbol. This beautiful little 12-year-old, shy boy, he ran away from school, his family tells me, because he was being sexually abused. It's disgusting.
He just wanted to get home to his two dogs and his sisters and his mom and his dad. He couldn't take it any more so he ran. Four days later he was found dead on the tracks. He wasn't the only kid either. I'm an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We've gathered about 6,000 names, but the TRC fears as many as 30,000 children perished in residential schools.
The book is much more simply written than some of your other novels, how did that come to be?
I think it's some of the strongest writing I've ever done. It made me fall in love with the act of writing again. I think it's more complicated in some ways, kind of, the two voices. It was as if I was being channelled when I wrote that book. Chanie's voice came to me very quickly.
And I was like, "he doesn't know the bigger picture, how am I going to paint the bigger picture? This book has to open up in ways."
That's when the voices of the manitous started emerging. At first it was just a crow and then that crow transformed into an owl.
These different voices of the different spirits following him and watching him on his journey allowed me as the writer to explain the bigger picture going on.
And the spirits are both light and dark.
In the native world, the Anishinaabe world, the Ojibwa world, no one is either good or evil. Nothing in this world is one or the other, it's a little more layered than that. These spirits can take a form that's frightening, but they can also be very gentle and loving as well.
I didn't mean "easy," by the way, but it is sort of … simpler than your novels. There's a larger discussion now around teaching children about residential schools and this book could definitely be used in a high-school class.
Absolutely. Even in grade school. I don't think grade seven or eights are too young to read that story, but grandparents aren't too old to read that story. I was just trying to capture the story, but when I was getting close I was like "yes, this is a story that I want people to read in high school and in college." I want parents to sit down with their children at the proper age and be able to read it.
What would you like a reader to take away, or to do, after reading the book?
I want us as Canadians to understand the fuller history of our country, to take it upon him or herself to learn beyond what you weren't taught in school. And the importance of that. It's not so we feel guilty or bad for what people we never met did, it's beyond that. It's how do we come together as a nation and move forward together.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
On Oct. 22, imagineNATIVE will present A Night for Chanie at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, featuring Joseph Boyden, Senator Murray Sinclair, Terril Calder, Kent Monkman, Digging Roots and more (imaginenative.org).
An earlier version of this article said Joseph Boyden directed a Heritage Minute. In fact he wrote it.