Secret Path

Chanie Wenjack died October 23rd 1966. He was twelve. He and two other boys ran away from their residential school, taking a Chanie Wenjack the secret path jeff-lemire-cbcsecret path north into the bush. They wanted to go home.

The other boys succeeded. They found their uncle’s cabin and stayed with him. But Chanie’s home was much farther away. He didn’t know where exactly, so he left on his own to continue walking until he found it.

He didn’t. Chanie died of exposure following the train track he hoped would take him home. He did get home, in the end. Indian Affairs sent his body by train and then plane home to Ogoki Post, 600 km north of the residential school he attended in Kenora, Ontario.

fort_albany_residential_school_students-c1945-edmund-metatawabin-coll-u-of-algoma
Fort Albany residential school, ca 1945, Edmund Metatawabin Collection, University of Algoma

Chanie, or Charlie as he was called at the school, was Ojibwe. He is one of thousands of First Nations children who died at residential schools in Canada. The stories of the dead and the survivors have been told to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

‘The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack’

Chanie Wenjack’s story was told at the time of his death. A 1967 article in Maclean’s paints a bleak picture of a boy’s unnecessary death and of unwanted institutional life. Author Ian Adams:

“The jury found that ‘the Indian education system causes tremendous emotional adjustment problems.’… But the most poignant suggestion was the one that reflected their own bewilderment: ‘A study be made of the present Indian education and philosophy. Is it right?'”

1948-letter-bc-teachers-federation-project-of-the-heart
Christmas Vacation letter to parents 1948, Kamloops Indian Residential School. Click for larger view.

50 years on, Chanie Wenjack’s story is being told anew. Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip, and graphic novelist Jeff Lemire tell it in song and pictures. The Secret Path is a elegy, and eulogy, for Chanie and all the children forced into residential schools. Joseph Boyden published a novella, Wenjack, imagining the final days of a too short life.

project-of-heart-bc-residential-schools
“This powerful graffiti message by an anonymous artist was painted on all of the doors of St. Michael’s Residential School before its demolition in 2015.”

For over a century, children were taken away from their families, and their languages and their identities. Many also  were abused sexually and psychologically. For all, however, the direct or indirect assumption that their First Nations cultures were not good enough was abuse. It probably takes as long to rebuild a culture as it does to kill one. So it’s going to take a long time to recover.

The photos of the door and the letter are from Project of Heart: Illuminating the hidden history of Indian Residential Schools in BC (BC Teachers Federation pdf).

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5 thoughts on “Secret Path”

  1. Hi Dorothy,
    I am writing a paper and would like to use the image on your website called “Christmas Vacation letter to parents 1948, Kamloops Indian Residential School. Click for larger view”. Can you please tell me if this is your image or where I can find the original?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Thanks, Bonnie, and good for Indigo! I see on the Secret Path website that sales proceeds are going to a Truth and Reconciliation fund. The entire video that aired on CBC TV is on the CBC Arts page, along with a lot of other background articles.

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