Gord Downie may have sung his last bit of Canadiana as front man and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, but a new solo offering will help spread the devastating story of this country's Indian residential schools long into the future.
Mr. Downie, who shocked Canadians with the news in May that he suffers from an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma, is releasing a new album and graphic novel about a young First Nations boy who died a half-century ago after running away from one of the schools.
All of the proceeds from the multimedia project, called Secret Path, will support the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which was created to preserve the memory of what happened at the institutions and the legacy of a system that ripped indigenous children from their families.
Mr. Downie was in the Marten Falls First Nation, a remote Ontario fly-in reserve 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, on Thursday to visit with the family of 12-year-old Chanie "Charlie" Wenjack, whose body was found beside a railway track in 1966.
"I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him," Mr. Downie said in a statement. "Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada's story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were."
His spare and haunting song speaks to the boy who is "on a secret path, the one that nobody knows …"
Already a frail child, Chanie collapsed from exposure and hunger while trying to make it back to Marten Falls from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., in October, 1966. He was wearing nothing but thin cotton clothing when he set out on journey of hundreds of kilometres through dense bush and he did not know the way home. His story has been told on Heritage Minutes.
Murray Sinclair, now a Senator, led a commission that spent several years recording the experiences of survivors of the residential schools, which operated for more than a century before the last one closed in 1996. That inquiry found, among other things, that the institutions funded by the federal government and operated by churches were aimed at cultural genocide.
"I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said: 'This is not an aboriginal problem; this is a Canadian problem,' " Mr. Downie, who refused media requests for interviews about the Secret Path project, said in his statement.
The money from the new album and book will be used to help the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation identify some of children who died at the schools and were buried in unmarked graves. It will also be used to commemorate their lives and, in some cases, return them to their home communities.
Chanie's body was returned to Marten Falls in a casket shortly after it was discovered. His angry and grieving father buried him in a tiny cemetery on the north shore of the Albany River. But many other children simply never came home.
Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, was with Mr. Downie as he visited the home of Chanie's sister, Pearl Achneepineskum.
"It's historic, in many ways," Mr. Fiddler said of Mr. Downie's travel to Northern Ontario and decision to commemorate the boy who died alone so many years ago. "The money and funds are secondary. Just the fact that he is taking the time and the energy to come up here and the significance of his visit to the family is quite extraordinary."
Mr. Downie's statement was a strong rebuke of the legacy of the schools and Canada's treatment of indigenous people.
"All those governments, and all of those churches, for all of those years, misused themselves," he said. "They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder."
Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, also travelled with Mr. Downie to Marten Falls.
"It has been reconciliation in action," Mr. Moran said. "You've got a very prominent Canadian, an amazing guy, deeply humble and caring and loving, who travels to a community like this with this incredible piece of his own contribution. And there has been this amazing coming-togetherness amongst and between the communities."
Mr. Moran said the contribution that Mr. Downie is making to the Centre will advance the work of "caretaking" the stories of the children who attended the schools. "Gord lending his voice to the work of truth and reconciliation in this country really helps raise awareness across the country on this critically important issue that, until we face it, in Gord's own words, we are not a country."
The donation to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is very generous, said David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba.
"Having the National Centre here has been important and to have Gord Downie make this commitment is amazing," Dr. Barnard said. "Hearing stories of the survivors of the residential schools, these stories are horrific," he said, "and Gord Downie's statement that we didn't know what kind of a country we were, and we're learning it, and we want it to be different … is something that we are well aligned with."