In the late 1800s the Canadian government enforced one of the worst policies in the young country’s history. The government introduced Aboriginal Residential Schools. The Christian church run boarding schools would remove Aboriginal children from their families and culture effectively to teach them to be white Canadians. This involved teaching away their language, teaching the children they were savages and pagans, teaching them that they were inferior to white children. Many cases of physical and sexual abuse have been reported from these residential schools. Out of the approximate 150,000 children forced into this school system at least 6,000 children died while in attendance. Many others were abused and all were taught that everything happening was their fault for simply being born the way they were. This is disgusting. Lives were lost. Families torn apart. A people persecuted.
It all sounds very bad and perhaps you never knew about residential schools. It was the late 1800s though, while some countries were figuring things out others were still mixed up. Well, unfortunately the embarrassing story continues to get worse. The last school didn’t close down until 1996. For over 100 years the Canadian government and the Christian church were abusing Aboriginal children in this attempt to eliminate their culture. As a white male who went through public and private schooling from the years of 1991 to 2004, I was never taught about the residential schools of Manitoba. I didn’t hear about them until my 5th year of University when an Aboriginal man came to one of my classes to share his heartbreaking story. It was shocking and infuriating. There is a clear divide in this country between the Aboriginal people and everyone else. I thought it simply went back to the initial shady deal that was made for their land but with the recent knowledge of over 100 years of child abuse and family destruction, it’s much deeper than a bad business deal. To this day, downtown Winnipeg is avoided by many and seen as a dangerous place due to the number of Aboriginal males inhabiting the streets. Closing the schools and throwing a bunch of money at it can’t solve the problem. It will take time and effort.
“It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over.” – Gord Downie
On October 22, 1966 a young boy named Chanie Wenjack (mistakenly called Charlie by his teachers because they are assholes) had enough of his residential school, he escaped and planned to follow the railroad tracks home. Chanie never made it; he actually lived 400 miles away and didn’t know it. He knew nothing of the location of his home, just that he wanted to be back there. He died on the journey. This tragic story is one of many. Gord Downie, lead singer of the popular Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, wrote 10 poems which he turned into an album of 10 songs in memory on Chanie. Gord wasn’t done there. He wanted to make an illustrated book to go along with this album so he contact Canadian comic book artist Jeff Lemire to pencil this story. They released the book and album Secret Path on October 16th, 2016.
When it comes to emotional grounded stories there is no one better than Jeff Lemire having written and drawing such personal and emotionally affecting comics like Essex County, Sweet Tooth and The Underwater Welder. He doesn’t hold anything back in Secret Path. The pain is felt and the tears are real. Lemire uses his signature rough lines to make the story feel personal while colouring with water-colour paints to produce striking big emotional moments. We are used to the Jeff Lemire emotional journey involving black and white pencils with strategic shading, but here, his usage of water-colours creates a few very powerful pages that would not have been as effective without the splash of colour. The book is 12″x12″ in size which provides large impressive images. It has no words aside from the lyrics to the album dispersed throughout. Yet, the lack of dialogue in Secret Path never holds back it’s potency as a story. Lemire masterfully constructs the panel design to dynamically tell the sad tale of Chanie’s journey home. Lemire’s art is so raw that connecting to it feels like I am in affinity directly to Lemire. I can feel each emotion put into every pencil line and brush stroke. It is evident through the quality of work that this book means something to Jeff and he wants to pass that on to everyone who opens it up.
The comic comes with a download code for the album which I suggest listening to while reading the story. It can be found on amazon and all proceeds go to The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation which is located at the University of Manitoba where I went to school. Although this is a sad post of a sad story, find hope that you live in a world where a rock star and a comic creator at the top of their field can collaborate on a powerful piece that not only raises funds but more importantly raises awareness so we can all move towards a better world together.
“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” – Barack Obama