Walk For Wenjack

For over 150 years, “Indian” residential schools operated in Canada. Over 150,000 indigenous children were sent to these residential schools. Many never returned. Often underfunded and overcrowded, these schools were used as a tool of assimilation by the Canadian government. Thousands of students suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse. All suffered from loneliness and a longing to be home with their families. The damages inflicted by these schools continue to this day as survivors try to heal from their experiences. 

One of those students was Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack. Chanie was born January 19, 1954. He died October 23, 1966, near Redditt, ON. An Anishinaabeg boy, at age 12 he ran away from Cecilia Jeffery Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. He was found a week later beside the railway tracks along the “secret path”, the name given to an escape route that runaways from the school used. He was wearing brown leather ankle boots, blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and a thin blue cotton windbreaker. His clothes were soaked through. In his jacket pocket was a small glass jar holding a few matches. All Chanie wanted was to go home, which was over 600 km away in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls First Nation. His death sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

In the fall of 2016 Canadian musician Gord Downie released the multidisciplinary project “Secret Path”. The release coincided with the 50th anniversary of Chanie’s death. “Secret Path” combines music, poetry, illustration and animation to tell the story of Chanie’s experience at residential school.

Inspired by the secret path story and Gord Downie's humility, sincerity, and determination to tell the story of all youths from the residential school era who never made it home, members from the Courage For Gord team launched and event and fundraiser called #walkforwenjack. Over two days they retraced the “secret path” of Chanie Wenjack.

The Walk For Wenjack took place in Kenora, Ontario over the weekend of November 19 and 20, 2016. Organized by Courage for Gord, the event saw a group of indigenous and non-indigenous walkers retrace the final steps of Chanie. I was there to document the walk.

Photographic prints from “The Secret Path’ Collection are available for purchase here. All sales support The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

Courage for Gord leader Rob Ferreira and Mike Downie smudge before entering the memorial park at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora.