‘Secret Path’: Gord Downie and the Artist’s Way

October 19, 2016 Updated: October 19, 2016

Gord Downie commands our attention. A poet who knows his place within his art, he has kept Canada hanging on his words for decades. And now he may be giving us his last.

With the release of “Secret Path,” Downie brings to fruition a project that began in 2014, long before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

“Secret path” is a multimedia endeavour recounting the tragic fate of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died in 1966 on a 600-kilometre trek home to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont.

“Chanie haunts me.” Downie writes in a statement on the “Secret Path” website. “His story is Canada’s story.”

It’s heartbreaking to think of a young boy searching for a way home to a family that never abandoned him, to escape from a system that failed him, only to end up dead on the side of a railroad track, malnourished and frozen. It is a gripping story in that it so eloquently exposes a chapter of stark inhumanity in Canada’s past.

In that past, Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples did not have the influence they have today. They did not have Supreme Court judgements enshrining their right to be consulted on decisions that affect their territory or place in Canada, or the power to shape the programs and policies applied to them, and certainly not a federal government that would apologize for the misery it had inflicted on them through the residential school system. 

The dark chapter of Canada’s residential schools marks an injustice that will take time and sincerity to recompense, a process still in its early years.

Through Downie, the death of Chanie Wenjack 50 years ago has become symbolic of the struggle of Canada’s First Nations people.

Through Downie, the death of Chanie Wenjack 50 years ago has become symbolic of the struggle of Canada’s First Nations people. It is impossible now to look at the abject poverty and dysfunction so common on reserves and in Canada’s remote communities without remembering the systematic destruction of aboriginal culture and values by residential school policies. Youth suicides in the North are a painful reminder that healing is far from over.

A signpost

If anything, Downie’s work will serve as a signpost on the path forward to a substantive  reconciliation.  

For all of the overt political gestures and genuine efforts for reconciliation by our politicians, there is something uniquely powerful about an artist’s treatment of an issue, as he is given a chance to transcend the mundane and speak to the heart of the matter. History has burdened the artist with the task of steering morality by bringing the buried workings of our conscience to the surface. And Downie is Canada’s man.

The shadow of mortality hangs over the release of “Secret Path.” Downie’s terminal cancer adds a gravitas to the work that could not be attained by other means. Any material he chose to release now would be seen as significant, and Canadians would embrace it out of sheer love for the man himself.

It is telling of Downie’s character that instead of self-glorification or preservation of a personal legacy, he has chosen to add a healing balm to one of our country’s open wounds.

As a multimedia project that includes music, a graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire, and an animated film, “Secret Path” is more than an album—it is a complete artistic treatment of a delicate issue whose reverberations will affect Canadians for generations to come.

As much as Downie has been a beacon of Canadian pride, he has used his final say to remind us of one of our great shames—not to scold but to help heal.

If this is Downie’s final word then Canada should the heed the call of one of her most beloved sons and humanitarians and do him the honour of somberly acknowledging this artist’s rendering of a very sad but important tale.

“Secret Path,” both album and book, were released on Oct. 18. The animated film “The Secret Path” will be broadcast by CBC in a television special on Sunday, Oct. 23. 

Ryan Moffatt is a Vancouver-based arts reporter, musician, and pop-culture pundit.