This is the only picture of Chanie Wenjack, the Ojibwe boy who died in October 50 years ago. When he was nine, Charlie as the teacher's named him, was torn from his family and home and sent to Cecilia Jeffreys Industrial Indian School. He endured losing the right to speak his language and practice his culture. He was abused sexually, physically and mentally.
October 16, 1966 was an unseasonably warm day in Northern Ontario when Chanie and two brothers escaped into the bush. There was a secret path that students had used to try and get back home. Chanie and his friends were not dressed for the sudden bitter change in weather. The two brothers found their trapper Uncle and were able to stay with him. Chanie was sent on by himself with the advice to stick to the railway tracks and get food from railway workers when he saw them. Somewhere along those tracks alone, cold and scared Chanie died from exposure and starvation. His body was found October 22nd. 600 km had been an impossible distance but he hadn't given up. He was covered with bruises from falling as he struggled to get home.
Last night CBC presented Secret Path, Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire's re-telling of Chanie's tragic story. Downie sings 10 songs composed to accompany the animation of Jeff Lemire, a award-winning graphic novelist. The images are stark and the music haunting. Secret Path is likely Gord Downie's final project. He is suffering from incurable brain cancer.
Works like this (acclaimed novelist Joseph Boyden has released a novella, Wenjack) are making Chanie Wenjack the face of residential school abuse and horror. Some estimates place the number of children who died at the schools or trying to escape them at 30,000. No one knows for sure.
Chanie Wejack's death led to the first public inquiry into the death of an aboriginal child in a residential school and the jury found “The Indian education system causes tremendous emotional and adjustment problems.” They also recommended that “a study be made of the present Indian education and philosophy," Kudos to that jury but it seems nothing much happened. The results of the inquiry must have been shelved because it took another thirty years (1996) before the last residential school closed.
The repercussions from the abuse of the children who survived are inter-generational. If the story of Chanie Wenjack finally creates awareness of this travesty visited on the First Nations people, he didn't die in vain. Awareness is the first step to making changes.
I debated writing anything about Chanie Wenjack. I am an ordinary, privileged white woman and until last night, I didn't know who he was. Then I thought, if even one person reads my little blog and thinks about the crimes committed on innocent First Nation children, I should do it.
RIP - Chanie Wenjack - born 19 January 1954; died 23 October 1966.
I've been writing on and off for years and this is where my more serious pieces will be.