Long shadows: Gord Downie & Chenie Wenjack
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.
Gord Downie, with visual accompaniment, performs his Secret Path album in a scene from the CBC documentary Finding the Secret Path.