“Let’s not celebrate the past 150 years.”
As a Canadian, strong in our national pride and beliefs that we are one helluva nation, this may sting a bit. Downie and the Hip have toured for years singing about Canadian history, our artists, our beautiful landscape, our hockey teams and more. Last night’s performance at Roy Thomson Hall however was tackling something that “white Canada” has ignored for years: the long lasting effects of indigenous oppression and the residential school system in particular. In that sense, the idea that we shouldn’t celebrate our history isn’t so crazy.
Downie’s performance at Roy Thomson Hall last night was done in conjunction with the recent release of Secret Path– a graphic novel featuring Downie’s poetry and the illustrations of Jeff Lemire. It tells the story of Chanie Wenjak, a twelve year old boy who was found dead from starvation after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora and trying to make the 600km trek home. Gord translated these poems and this story into beautiful music to go along with a short film.
Upon entrance to the venue, we received a small bundle of tobacco to hold throughout the show and release somewhere peaceful afterwards. We were also given tissues as the show was anticipated to trigger high emotions. These tissues were collected after the show and sent to the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation in Manitoba to be ceremoniously burned.
The concert started with a talk by Mike Downie, Gord’s brother, who introduced the show. Finally, Gord took the stage and performed ten songs back to back while the film was screened in the background. Each song told a different story of Wenjak’s escape and eventual death- leaving home and going to a strange new place, being out in the school yard and witnessing abuse, sexual harassment, running away, walking along the tracks and staring death in the face in the elements of the Canadian wilderness.
The performance and corresponding screening of Secret Path was beautifully done. The film’s illustrations contrasted the bleak world of the residential school and Chanie’s escape with the warmth of his home. Even the colours symbolized the assimilation. In his memories, Chanie’s skin was darker but as he was assimilated his skin and that of the other students turned gaunt and white. Their identities were being stripped. The songs were absolutely haunting and perfectly fit the story.
Afterwards, a short documentary of Downie’s visit to Ogoki Post to visit Wenjack’s family was screened. Gord explained his mission to Chanie’s sisters, saying he had a platform to do something significant right now. The audience chuckled as Gord told them about the Tragically Hip show in Kingston- the family had no idea what he was talking about. They hadn’t seen it. Soon however, the conversation turned serious as the sisters reminisced about Chanie and as the group visited his grave site.
After the documentary, the large Wenjak family who had taken up the first three rows of the audience, were brought onto the stage. In a moving discussion, Mike Downie introduced all those who had made the project possible and urged the audience to help our indigenous populations before Pearl Wenjak (one of Chanie’s sisters) told stories of his youth, played the song Ashes of Love ( Chanie’s favourite) and blessed the audience with a moving song.
All photographs in this post were taken by Ryan Mueller.