Mike Downie hopes the story of Chanie Wenjack, who died 50 years ago trying to return home from residential school in northern Ontario, will live on through the words of his late brother, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip.
The Downies worked on The Secret Path, a multi-media presentation featuring a graphic novel, 10-song album and animated film that tells Chanie’s story through Gord Downie’s words. The album was released just before Gord died of brain cancer on Oct. 17, 2017.
Mike Downie toured Vancouver Island for a week last month, visiting schools in two different districts and making multiple presentations. In Port Alberni he did three Secret Path presentations in front of a combined 1,100 students from Alberni District Secondary School, and Grade 7 students from Neill, Alberni, Dunn, John Paul II and Haa-huu-payak elementary schools.
“He was wonderful with the kids, taking time talking to them after the show and taking photos,” ADSS principal Rob Souther said.
“He’s a storyteller. There’s clearly the Downie family trait here; they (Mike and late brother Gord) can tell a mean story.”
Downie helped the students focus on the intangible concept of reconciliation, giving them a way to understand it on their level. “It wasn’t one of those guilt and blame kind of shows. It’s hopeful,” Souther said.
Making it real is exactly what Mike Downie hopes to achieve with his Secret Path tour and Legacy Schools program of educators committed to reconciliation.
“When you start to think about it a little more you realize the resiliency of this culture. I hope it’s just going to get stronger. I believe it’s going to become a huge part of what Canadians think of who we are,” Downie said.
“I’m excited these kids are learning about the real history of Canada. My brother Gord was the kind of guy, he was never afraid of the tough conversations. He was a courageous kind of guy. This story of Canada is not very nice. It doesn’t show us in a flattering light, clearly.
“But that doesn’t mean we should turn away from it either. It’s the same thing for a nation as it is for an individual. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror, you’ve got to look at your faults and you’ve got to come to grips with it. If you don’t, there’s literally no chance of making any kind of progress whatsoever.”
Downie said students he has met through his school presentations have a greater awareness of what happened in the past, and says he is hopeful they will build on what they are learning. “It’s going to change this country,” he said. “It’s going to make it a better country.”
“I saw it three times and I cried three times,” ADSS vice-principal Jeannette Badovinac said.