When I get scared, tired, or sick, I want to go home. I bet you do, too. Home is safe. Home is familiar. Home is love. Chanie Wenjack just wanted to go home, too. He wanted to be where he felt safe, surrounded by his familiars. He wanted to be where he was loved. Chanie Wenjack died 50 years ago, cold and alone as he fled the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, an institution he was forced into attending. He was just trying to get home. Chanie’s story is factual, it is real. As with most stories, though, Chanie’s has layers, has depth and context–it has truth–that can’t be cropped out and edited away.
Chanie died because he froze to death following a railway he hoped and believed would take him home. That is a fact. Chanie died because he was taken from his home when he did not want to leave. That is fact, too. Chanie died because of government policies meant to exterminate all traces of his indigenous culture and traditions. He died because of misconceived prejudices, because of long-standing and factless bias against indigenous people. Chanie and thousands upon thousands of other indigenous people died because of fear and intolerance over differences. They died because one human being decided that another human being was less human than they were. They died because someone thought they were strangers, and believed that strangers needed to be feared. That is truth.
Gord Downie, his brother Mike Downie, artist Jeff Lemire, and the Wenjack family set out to tell Chanie’s story with the Secret Path project, to not only bring attention to the facts of Chanie Wenjack’s death, but to the underlying truth of his tragedy. In Gord Downie’s words, Chanie’s story “…is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were.”
He’s right. Fact is indisputable. It may not be pleasant, but no amount of scrub or spin can change fact. Truth is more malleable than fact, so much so that truth can actually be fabricated. For generations, Canadians have allowed truth to be twisted, altered, and ultimately used as a cloak to cover over fact. Canadians have believed a manufactured truth about why indigenous people should be subjected to live in deplorable conditions and denied the basic rights of personhood, all the while ignoring one single, undeniable fact: indigenous people are human beings, too. We most certainly are not the country we thought we were.
We won’t ever know what Chanie was thinking as he blindly followed those railway tracks, hoping they would take him home, but in one single, devastating opening line on “The Stranger”, Gord Downie gives voice to his truth: “I am a stranger, you can’t see me / I am a stranger, do you know what I mean?”
We’re starting to know, Chanie. We’re all working on getting past the facts, and sitting in the truth. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s shameful, and, and it’s unforgivable, but it is so necessary to healing. Canada didn’t just break the golden rule when they put you and thousands of others into systematic camps meant to assimilate you into ‘white Canada’, they decimated it. Like you, we’re heading out on a journey we hope will bring us home to peace, love, and safety. Like you, we have no idea what awaits us on the path. If there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s this: we will not be strangers to one another anymore. The secret to setting out on this road to reconciliation is knowing we need to move away from fear, hate, and oppression. It’s the only direction that will bring all of us home.