Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack is immortalized in Secret Path, the graphic novel and 10-song album by musician Gord Downey and author Jeff Lemire. Secret Path sheds light on one boy’s tragic story, the story of one of thousands of residential school survivors.
Haunting visuals and moving song lyrics capture 12-year-old Chanie’s feelings of despair and hope as he escapes from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. We experience his emotional journey, alone and scared, along the tracks, in the forest of northern Ontario. Each step away reveals the suffering and trauma witnessed first-hand at school. Yet each step away also brings him closer to the safety of his family. Memories of his almost forgotten way of life flash in his mind and brighten his thoughts, giving him strength to endure the cold, freezing rain and ice. If he listens to the feeling in his heart, he knows he is not alone. Even in his death, he is not alone.
By exploring this tragic part of Canadian history, students will gain a deeper understanding of the short- and long-term consequences of residential schools. This graphic novel can be integrated into a variety of subject areas beyond English, including Arts and Health. Students can examine how Lemire uses colour to communicate emotions and Downey uses lyrics to convey messages. Students can create meaning, examine biases and break down stereotypes. They can express their thoughts and emotions by creating and performing movement phrases, “living” art work, inspired by the images and/or the songs. Engaging in historical inquiries, encouraging discussions and acknowledging feelings might also encourage students to identify their role in reconciliation.
Chanie Wenjack’s life meant something. His tragic story, told through images and songs, conveys powerful messages that will awaken your emotions and forever touch your heart. It is a story that must be remembered and shared so we can all heal and take steps along the path of hope, acceptance and reconciliation.
Kareena Butler is a member of the Ottawa Carleton Teacher Local.