The opening segment of Secret Path, set to the haunting song “The Stranger” sung by Gord Downie, is perhaps the most illustrative for me. It juxtaposes Chanie Wenjack’s home, and his treacherous walk home. Comic artist Jeff Lemire’s use of colour was perfection. But what I found particularly refreshing was the lack of stereotypical representations. Chanie’s father was not the “wild man” that he and all of mainstream Canada were taught to believe. He was simply a father loved by his son, like fathers everywhere. And this is the secret. But I will come back to that.
Throughout Secret Path, Chanie is illustrated as a dark-haired boy clothed in nondescript clothing. A young, terrified and alone dark-haired boy. He played on swings like all children do, he liked to fish, like so many children learn to do. Even the scenes that illustrated punishment and abuse at the hands of a priest, could have been about any boy in attendance at any religious school—of which we now know there were many worldwide.
Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, Calls To Action were made recommending mainstream Canadians learn about Indigenous culture. And why is this so important? It is not to make mainstream Canadians feel guilty—although we as a collective bear the burden of guilt—but rather to recognize the humanity of an entire segment of Canada that has been ignored, even denied, for centuries.
With the gravitas the name Gord Downie brings to this project, this animation attempts to bring attention to the inequities present in the northern communities. Secret Path was not designed to teach the story of the Residential School System. That is told elsewhere. This project was, however, about honouring the life of a little boy, about recognizing who was to blame for the death of that little boy, and it was about reminding mainstream Canadians to be empathetic. Chanie, drawn as Lemire did, deliberately suggests he could be could be any little boy anywhere in rural Canada. He could be any child, living with happy childhood memories, any child with a family who loves him.
It is also important to keep in mind that while students in the RSS were being inculcated to believe they were heathen, dirty, subhuman beings not worthy of decent food let alone humane treatment whilst in the care of church and government, so too was mainstream taught the same. Secret Path is teaching us that for reconciliation to truly begin, all people living in Canada need to see the humanity in each of us. It is only with this acceptance that we can use that empathy as a motivation to build the bridges between cultures, from both shores. Chanie’s sister Pearl states, “As big as the world is, we are all connected in some way. I don’t know how, but I know that.” This is the very connection that the Canadian government and the RSS sought to destroy. This is the spark of humanity that is the key, the secret, to begin healing those connections again.
Will this be a project destined for classrooms everywhere? Perhaps. Regardless, it was beautifully structured, and Lemire’s work continues to mature. I was already a huge fan of his illustrative talents. Now I am more so!
What did you think of Secret Path? Comment below.