Wenjack was 12 years old when he ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey residential school in Kenora on Sunday, Oct. 16, 1966. A slight boy with thick, dark hair, Wenjack could not take one more second at the Presbyterian-run residential school.
He was trying to run home. But home was more than 600 kilometres northeast, and he travelled in the deceptive warmth of the mid-October sun, a time of year when in an instant, the weather can turn cold and grey. And it did. He never made it. Wenjack died of hunger and exposure on Oct. 22, 1966.
The boy’s flight remains a reminder of the thousands of indigenous children who never made it home from residential school – the policy of forced schooling of indigenous children in order to Christianize and assimilate them into white Canadian society. Nearly 150,000 children were taken from their families over 130 years and sent to nearly 140 church-run, federally funded schools across the country.
Wenjack ran from Cecilia Jeffrey with two of his buddies, the orphaned MacDonald brothers, Ralph, 13, and Jackie, 11, according to a story in Maclean’s, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” published in 1967. (Chanie’s name had been Anglicized to Charlie at school.)
Wenjack planned was to follow the CN rail tracks until he could negotiate his way home to Ogoki Post, Marten Falls First Nation, a remote community on the shores of the Albany River, deep in the muskeg of the James Bay lowlands.
This is where the friends parted. Wenjack set out alone, not dressed for the cold. He wore a thin jacket, a plaid shirt and pants. The coroner’s report into Wenjack’s death noted that, Wenjack had a few match sticks in a jar, given to him by the MacDonald boys’ aunt.
He made it 20 km east along the CN tracks outside of Redditt before he collapsed and died of “exposure to cold and wet,” read the official death certificate filled out by Kenora coroner Dr. Glenn Davidson.
Downie visited Ogoki with Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. The centre serves as the permanent repository for records related to the residential school system and has pledged to donate the proceeds to it.
Fiddler praised Downie’s attention to indigenous issues as a turning point.
“Somebody said it is like another Terry Fox moment for Canada. Every once in a while, someone comes along and tells us what we need to do to make ourselves better as a nation. That is what Gord is doing,” said Fiddler, grand chief to the 49 First Nations that make up Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
Moran called the meeting an emotional moment. “I have worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission since the beginning. I heard from lots of survivors, but there is something so real about sitting down with Gord and seeing his offering. He said, ‘I hope you like this. I hope I made you proud’,” Moran said.
Downie is lead singer of The Tragically Hip and revealed in May that he suffers from an incurable form of brain cancer. Last month the band completed the emotional Man Machine Poem Canadian tour with a performance in their hometown of Kingston, Ont.
The album and 88-page graphic novel published by Simon & Schuster Canada will be released on Oct. 18.
“As Gord said, we aren’t a real country yet until we face this history. It is no longer an excuse for us not to know anymore,” Moran said.
With files from The Canadian Press