Chanie Wenjack died October 23rd 1966. He was twelve. He and two other boys ran away from their residential school, taking a secret path north into the bush. They wanted to go home. The other boys succeeded. They found their uncle’s cabin and stayed with him. Chanie’s home, however, was much farther away. He didn’t know where exactly, so he left on his own to continue walking until he found it.
But 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.
Chanie, or Charlie as they called him at the school, was Ojibwe. He is one of thousands of First Nations children who died at residential schools in Canada. Families of the dead and survivors have told their stories 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?'”
50 years on, Chanie Wenjack’s story is getting new tellings. 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.
For over a century, government and churches took children way 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).