Long shad­ows: Gord Downie & Che­nie Wen­jack

StarMetro Edmonton - - DAILY LIFE - Vi­nay Menon

Gord Downie seems to be at the ta­ble with us.

I can see him in the eyes of his broth­ers, Pa­trick and Mike. I can hear his voice, his dream of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, when they ex­plain the work on Indige­nous is­sues that con­sumed his fi­nal months, work they’ve vowed to con­tinue. But most of all, I can feel Gord in their love and their sor­row.

“Many days, it’s tough get­ting your head off the pil­low,” says Pa­trick. “And you don’t even know why. I guess it takes time. Grief is a weird thing.”

Mike glances at his younger brother and nods: “It’s not a straight line.”

“Keep it go­ing,” Gord of­ten told them, in his fi­nal months. “Keep it mov­ing for­ward.”

Nearly a year ago, they lost their brother. In many ways, we all lost their brother. Though the shock­ing di­ag­no­sis of in­cur­able brain can­cer had sparked na­tional mourn­ing months be­fore, the grim bul­letin landed like a thun­der­bolt on an oth­er­wise quiet Tues­day.

Justin Trudeau went be­fore the cam­eras and fell to pieces.

His tears said it all. Gor­don Edgar Downie, dead at 53. It didn’t feel real. Maybe it never will.

For more than three decades as the front­man for The Trag­i­cally Hip and a solo artist, Gord was not just a rock god for the ages. He was also our poet lau­re­ate, a draw­bridge link­ing small towns to big cities, a sage and a ras­cal, a cul­tural am­bas­sador, a buz­z­saw of cre­ativ­ity and, near the end, a check on our con­science. And what he thought about in his fi­nal years was Chanie Wen­jack. It was Mike who first told him the tragic story:

Chanie, a 12-year-old Anishi­naabe boy, tried to es­cape from the Ce­cilia Jef­frey In­dian Res­i­den­tial school in Kenora, On­tario, in 1966. He set off on a doomed jour­ney along the rail­way tracks, at­tempt­ing to walk 600 kilo­me­tres back to his fam­ily in Ogoki Post. His body was found a few days later. A small child, over­come with lone­li­ness and de­spair, had died of tar­va­tion and ex­po­sure in ntario. Chanie’s story tor­mented Gord. It also in­spired his most cru­cial work. Se­cret Path started as 10 po­ems,be­came 10 songs, and then 10 chap­ters in a graphic vel il­lus­trated by Jeff Leire. The con­cept al­bum and book spawned a con­cert and an­i­mated film, broad­cast by the CBC.

On Fri­day, the third and fi­nal doc­u­men­tary re­lated to the project — Find­ing The Se­cret Path — will air on CBC. It in­cludes never-be­fore-seen footage of Downie’s last year. This is must-watch TV that’s also hard to watch.

DAVE CHAN/CBC

Gord Downie, with vis­ual ac­com­pa­ni­ment, per­forms his Se­cret Path al­bum in a scene from the CBC doc­u­men­tary Find­ing the Se­cret Path.

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