Published Nov 30, 2016In the 1967 Maclean's article that inspired Gord Downie's Secret Path project, there's a brief aside that has nothing and everything to do with the death of Chanie Wenjack.
It's a scene set in Kenora, ON, where Chanie's residential school was located, the morning the 12-year-old was discovered by the railroad tracks, dead after 36 hours in the elements. (Trying to walk the 400 miles to his home, he made it little more than 12.) The author, Ian Adams, finds himself at a hamburger restaurant at which an Indigenous woman, seemingly intoxicated, is causing a pitiful sort of scene.
"That's what they do to themselves," mocks a white customer. The kid behind the counter, also white, responds with anger: "No, we did… it was you, me, and everybody else."
I thought back to those words as I sat watching Downie's Secret Path show in Halifax Tuesday night (November 29). I thought about how the long journey towards true reconciliation hinges on similar words and sentiments. I thought about how distressingly easy it is to frame the recent past as distant history, or to avoid the discomfort and hard work it takes to stare down enduring legacies of cultural genocide.
I expected the show — the third such concert, following similar performances in Ottawa and Toronto last month — to be a heavy affair. What I wasn't sure of was how much of that emotional weight would be focused on Downie himself, given his terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. Halifax didn't get a Tragically Hip show on this summer's tour, and demand for the Secret Path performance crashed the ticket-selling website half an hour before tickets went on sale. Many in the capacity crowd undoubtedly approached the evening as perhaps their last chance to say goodbye.
But it was Chanie's story, not Gord's, that was decidedly the focus. In front of projected scenes from the accompanying animated film, featuring Jeff Lemire's illustrations, Downie and his band performed Secret Path start-to-finish, no more, no less. It sounded spectacular, but that's no surprise given the all-star lineup of players Downie had assembled: Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), Dave Hamelin (the Stills), Josh Finlayson (the Skydiggers), Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think) and Kevin Hearn (Barenaked Ladies).
Downie — slower in motion, perhaps, but as enigmatic and energizing as ever — paced the front of the stage, microphone cord curled in his left hand. Embodying Chanie's ill-fated determination, he frequently propelled his arms in circles as if walking forward or running with great purpose. At other moments, like during opening song "The Stranger," Downie pulled the mic away from his mouth and howled, letting loose a primal scream echoing acoustically through the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.
Downie is a difficult performer to look away from, but as the band reached the record's emotional peaks — the looming despair of its title track, the angry resignation of closer "Here, Here and Here" — I found myself watching Lemire's illustrations more and more closely. I could still hear Downie's best vocal weapons at work, from his sharp diction to his fevered crescendos, but for me it was the cold, stark visuals that best summed up the tragic end of Chanie's story.
Together, Downie and Secret Path make an interesting vessel for that story. Secret Path is the tale of an Ojibwa boy from Ontario who died a half century ago, told through music that sounds like a dialogue between Downie's folk poetry and the early-aughts indie rock sounds of collaborators Drew and Hamelin. That's my language, music I — 30-something, upper-middle-class white male — connect with. It's likely music a good portion of the crowd last night connected with, too. And it's the sort of music we've typically labeled as sounding "Canadian" — familiar and comfortable, even when it's trying to break your heart.
There's a risk of reduction (let alone appropriation) intrinsic to such an approach, and I'm not sure I personally have the insight or experience to fully unpack its complications. But I do feel there's something powerful about presenting Chanie Wenjack's story not just as something that happened to someone, or just to Canada's Indigenous peoples, but to us — that Chanie's tragedy is Canada's tragedy. And it seems poignant that it's Downie — a songwriter as associated with iconic Canadiana as any in my lifetime — who's spending what might be his public life's final act turning his talents towards a tale that challenges comfortable conceptions of what it means to be Canadian.
But the conversation can't begin and end with Downie and Secret Path. And Tuesday night, it didn't. Ry Moran (director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation), Natan Obed (president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) and Doreen Bernard (a member of the Sipekne'katik First Nation) spoke prior to the performance, complementing Chanie's story with history, context and the need for action. And at the end of the night Downie was joined by Chanie's sisters, Daisy and Pearl, with Pearl singing a Cree song she described as "a prayer for healing." The crowd, stone silent, hung on every note as her voice, trembling, reached the song's end.
"I hope you enjoy this country's first year next year," said Downie as he exited the stage, suggesting Canada's 150th become a sort of "year one." It's a simple, powerful notion — too simple, really. (If only history's dark edges were so easy to iron out.) But as a conversation starter, it's something. And so, as he finished the show, Downie returned his microphone to its stand backwards, facing the crowd.
It's our conversation now.