On October 23, Peterborough residents and Trent students gathered in Otonabee College’s Wenjack Theatre for a panel discussion and live screening of Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie’s short film Secret Path: Dying for an Education: The Story of Chanie Wenjack. The event’s main objective was to draw attention to the life of Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who died in 1966 while trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Northwestern Ontario.
The residential school system casts a dark shadow on the Canadian government’s long, complex history with this country’s Indigenous people. From about 1880 to 1996, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken out of their communities to attend these church-run institutions. Residential schools were established with the perception that Indigenous children ought to be assimilated into Canadian society by adopting a European system of values and by being taught in either French or English. These schools disconnected Indigenous children from their culture and language, and more often than not, did not prepare them for life in Canadian urban settings. Over 3000 children died in these schools, and sexual, emotional, and physical abuse was rampant. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008 with a mandate to document the effects residential schools, has described the residential school system as “cultural genocide”.
The event began with an opening prayer by Shirley Ida Williams née Pheasant, a residential school survivor, Professor Emerita at Trent University, and one of the four members of the panel discussion. This was followed by a performance by members of the Unity Singers, an Indigenous women’s a capella collective based out of Peterborough, and a welcoming to the territory by Chief Phyllis Williams of Curve Lake First Nations. Dr. Jackie Muldoon, Provost and Vice President Academic then took the stage, followed by Department of Education Faculty member Dr. Nicole Bell. Muldoon’s address focused mostly on the history and cultural significance of Wenjack Theater itself, while Bell’s highlighted the importance of remembering the collective trauma suffered by Canada’s native population as a result of residential schools and other state-sanctioned assimilation policies.
All three of the Indigenous members on the panel had felt these traumatic effects mentioned by Dr. Muldoon. For Shirley Williams, a survivor of the school system, these effects were direct. Williams shared her story of being placed in the residential school system and the feeling of alienation this left her with. For Liz Stone, Director of Niijkiwendidaa Anishnnabe-Kwewag Services Circle, and Dawn Martin, an Indigenous Studies major, the effects of the residential school system were intergenerational. Both Stone and Martin told the stories of their grandparents attending residential schools and the long-lasting painful consequences this had on not only them, but on their children as well. It is important to recognize that the pain caused by residential schools does not stop with those directly affected. According to Health Canada, Indigenous youth are about five to six times more likely to commit suicide than other young people, and according to a survey by the First Nations Information Governance Centre, almost a quarter of Indigenous adults living in Canada have contemplated suicide at some point in their life.
In response to the panel’s central discussion question, “What can we as Canadians do to make sure this kind of atrocity does not happen again?” Stone and Martin each highlighted the importance of educating the Canadian population as a whole on Canada’s colonial legacy and its effects on today’s Indigenous population. Williams and Martin also touched on themes of forgiveness. For Martin, the ability of her mother to forgive the transgressions of her grandfather through recognizing the role that residential school played in his actions throughout her childhood was a key learning experience for her. For Williams, the ability to “forgive but not forget” the Canadian government’s role in establishing residential school system was not only a means to avoid being defined by her victimhood, but also an important part of her own personal path towards reconciliation.
John Milloy, Professor Emeritus and author of A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System responded to the discussion question was bluntly. “We don’t, we haven’t, and we probably will not.” Milloy expressed his frustration with the fact that Canadian public schools still play a central role in the assimilation of Indigenous students to become effectively non-Indigenous actors within Canadian society and that children from reserves are still often taken from their families and put in boarding houses to attend public schools in cities like Thunder Bay.
The Secret Path, the animated short film that followed, was as visually breathtaking as it was heartbreaking. With beautiful two-colour illustrations from graphic novelist Jeff Lemire paired with Downie’s distinct vocals from his latest album of the same title, the film documents Chanie’s time in and attempted escape from the residential school system. The film is concluded with Gord meeting with Chanie’s four surviving sisters and discussing their personal memories of him and his legacy. “There’s something wrong with this country… Something’s not right,.” Downie solemnly says to the sisters. “Down south, none of us heard a darn thing about what was happening up here.”
This quote echoes sentiments previously expressed by panelists Liz Stone and Dawn Martin: the Canadian population remains under-informed about the role residential schools played in the oppression of Canada’s Indigenous people. While Downie’s film cannot undo the pain caused by residential schools and other Canadian assimilation policies, it and events like this one can be effective tools in educating members of the public on Canada’s colonial history in the path towards truth and reconciliation.
For more information on The Secret Path project, and to view the short film for yourself, go to secretpath.ca.