Inspiring Students with Gord Downie’s Secret Path

Written by Joan Suzuki / Posted on

I am sure Gord Downie is on the minds of many Canadians, with his passing on Tuesday October 17, after his well known battle with brain cancer.  Many know Gord Downie as the charismatic frontman of the Tragically Hip, a well loved Canadian band from Kingston, Ontario.  During his final tour he used used his opportunity and exposure to address Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the crowd and said,

“We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands. He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, so it’s not on the improve. (But) we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.

Thank you everybody. Thanks for listening to that. Thanks for listening, period. Have a nice life.”

Trudeau in turn, on Gord Downie’s passing gave a tearful tribute  recognizing Gord Downie and the impact of his music on Canadians.

Sheila North Wilson, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak Grand Chief represented from former MKO Indian Residential School students and their family members in support the Secret Path project. Wilson states, “As MKO citizens, we will be forever grateful to Gord for his efforts in using his voice, art and unbelievable talent to advocate for the rights of the citizens of our remote and isolated First Nations.”  Wilson was invited to spend a week with the Gord Downie’s documentary crew at Ogoki Post and speaks to his genuine sincerity. She acknowledges his impact is the result of not only his talent but the reach of Gord Downie’s tremendous following in Canada.

For myself, as an educator committed to bring reconciliation to our teaching in Manitoba, Gord Downie first came onto my radar with the Secret Path project.  Since October of 2016, as I introduced Secret Path to many students from Grade One to Grade Nine, I witnessed the deeply moving effect of Gord Downie’s multimedia project.

For those unfamiliar with this project, Gord Downie wrote a set of ten songs based on the story of twelve year old Chanie Wenjack who died in 1966, running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora while attempting to walk home along the railway tracks to Ogoki Post 400 miles away.  Mike Downie brought the story to his brother’s attention with the Maclean’s article, The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack.

These wonderfully written songs are in the voice of Chanie Wenjack.  Graphic artist, Jeff Lemire created a graphic novel to accompany the album.  Justin Stephenson adapted the novel to animation. The CBC released Secret Path across Canada on the fiftieth anniversary of Chanie’s death.  Prior to and after the animation is footage of Gord Downie visiting Chanie Wenjack’s family in Ogoki Post.  Included in the CBC airing after the 45 minute Secret Path video is the Road to Reconcilation panel conversation with CBC’s Jesse Wente, filmmaker Tasha Hubbard and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation director, Ry Moran. See here.

Students empathize strongly with Chanie Wenjack.  When I return to their classroom as a guest teacher, they often remember Chanie.  I have used the Secret Path to activate art and music engagement.

The graphic novel and the easily accessible CBC video provide a very flexible resource to use with students. Without technology I have simply talked about the novel with the students as an activation for an art response. The album sized book is without words and encourages a natural and open telling and discussion.  One student noticed the only speech bubble in the graphic novel is Chaney saying “goodbye” as he looks onto his body lying curled up by the tracks.  When technology is available, the students can listen to Gord Downie’s songs as they reflect and create their artwork.  The ambiance is multimodal and engaging.

I use an art technique I learned from Andrea Bell Stuart, an art instructor for education students at the University of Winnipeg.  Food colouring is a vibrant and inexpensive medium.  I explain to the students that the artist has only used blues, grey and black to give the story a feeling of the cold and loneliness on Chaney’s journey.  A pencil sketch with optional text is outlined in permanent Sharpie marker and painted in washed of blue food colouring.  Sprinkling salt to give the effect of the freezing rain always is an exciting final touch to the work.

In the music room I have simulated railroad tracks on the floor with blue painters tape.  For these lessons we learn the first track, The Stranger.  I teach students the chorus.  In small groups they act out the verses on the railway tracks, transitioning groups as we sing the chorus.  Another one of my tried and true techniques is laying out the lyrics horizontally in a Word document and having each verse and chorus printed in large font on a single page.  It is a great format for a music stand.

Chanie ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School with two brothers who knew the way to their uncle’s house.  Chanie was called a stranger by this family and encouraged to return to school.  The Stranger is a song in which Chanie broods and muses upon his plight as he continues on his journey.

The Stranger is a good song (six minutes) to use for the art activation.  It includes not only scenes of Chanie’s lonely walk along the railroad track, but also scenes from residential school. I generally talk over the video, explaining Chanie’s memories as he walks.  I always encourage students to be respectful of the scene in the boys’ shower.  In contrast to the blue and grey palette, memories of home are depicted in warm colours as Chanie remembers his freedom on the land and his relationship with his dad.

Gord Downie used his music, his connection with others to inspire many Canadians.  It is by shining a light on the story of one boy, Chanie Wenjack, that we as Canadians can begin to see the path we need to follow beyond the railroad tracks to a remote northern First Nations, towards a recognition of our collective need to understand the past and find a way forward.

William Whyte

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