When I heard of the graphic novel Secret Path drawn by one of my favorite artist’s, Jeff Lemire, I knew I wanted to read it, not understanding that it was so much more than a book. Secret Path is a ten song concept album written by Gord Downie paired with a graphic novel that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack.
Chanie was a twelve year-old Anishinaabe boy who died in 1966, trying to escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Ontario, Canada. Chanie, often called Charlie, was trying to walk approximately 400 miles home by following the Canadian National Railway but perished of hunger and exposure.
Lemire’s interpretation of Chanie’s last journey is wordless, but with lyrics of Downie’s songs alongside the pictures. The residential school and Canadian wilderness are shown starkly with white, grey, black and blue colors representing his loneliness and isolation. Only when Chanie is thinking of his family are his memories shown in contrasting warm hued colors. This is similar in how Lemire told another story about a First Nation’s family in his recent book, Roughneck. Lemire also effectively frames Chanie’s sad memories of the school in an off-kilter method that keeps the adults heads out of the panels and draws his trademark black bird as part of the imagery.
While the graphic novel is excellent, it should be read in tandem to listening to the ten songs that were written by Downie before he even contacted Lemire to illustrate the accompanying book. Afterwards watch the video that combines the graphics and music into a haunting montage. Sadly, Downie died in October, but his music and the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund will be a lasting legacy.
While this tragic story highlights one individual, Chanie truly represents the hundreds of thousands of native children that the Canadian government took from their homes and sent to residential schools. Canada doesn’t stand alone on trying to eradicate native culture, the United States government did the same to native families- ripping family and cultural connections from them and trying to get them to assimilate into what government and religious officials felt was appropriate. Kudos to Downie and Lemire for bringing attention to this shameful part of Canada’s (and America’s) history, for only through a truthful reflection can positive change and reconciliation be established.