When grade six teacher Sarah Howard decided to show the animated film ‘The Secret Path’ to her students on Orange Shirt Day, she didn’t expect to embark with them on a month-long project.
The 60-minute video combines the music of late Canadian music legend Gord Downie with the illustrations of graphic novelist Jeff Lemire. It tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12 year-old Ojibwe boy who died of hunger and exposure while running away from a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966.
The Secret Path project, including Downie’s concept album, Lemire’s graphic novel and the animated film combining them, was released in October 2016, with permission of the Wenjack family.
Howard was familiar with the work from its original release.
“When it was coming out, and Gord Downie was doing his last performances, I was actually doing my Master’s in music,” she said. “I didn’t research that work in particular, but I did research Indigenous music tied to Reconciliation, and the revitalization of communities.”
“I am not an Indigenous person, I am a settler,” she added, “but it’s something that became really interesting to me…I still have a lot to learn in terms of Indigenous education but I have been really touched by how powerful education is as a tool to work towards Reconciliation.”
Howard decided to show the Secret Path film to her students at École Sir John A. Macdonald Public School on Wednesday, Sep. 30, 2020. Dubbed ‘Orange Shirt day,’ it is a national day of recognition for Canadian residential school survivors and their families, when people wear orange in a show of solidarity.
“I didn’t have a plan to launch into a whole unit on this,” Howard said. “But, the students were so interested, we just kept going.”
A first-person writing assignment
As an English writing assignment, Howard has asked her students to write first-person narratives from the perspective of Chanie Wenjack.
“What we’ve been working on is listening to the music and watching the illustrations. They came up with their own narratives, as if they were Chanie, to relate to the experience of being a student fleeing residential school,” she said.
Howard said she has been impressed by the creativity and maturity that her students have brought to the assignment. “It’s been really beautiful to see the students’ work and how they identified with the experiences,” she said.
“The students are describing what they might be experiencing walking through the forest when they first fled. A lot of them focused on that. Some students really picked up on Chanie’s special relationship with his father. That is something that is really featured in the illustrations and the music for Secret Path,” she said.
Other students focused on what they felt residential school might have been like for Chanie before he left, and described that. Howard said the results are some truly haunting narratives.
“Ultimately some of them go as far as imagining what Chanie’s last moments must have been like in the forest…. So really emotional, and heavy for Grade 6,” she said.
She said there is a large emphasis in education right now on making sure that students “are well,” and on social-emotional learning. “This was a really interesting exercise in tying that in, but also looking at the trauma that Indigenous communities have experienced as well,” she said.
Howard said she is unsure if there are any Indigenous children in her class, or people with familial ties to residential school survivors.
“No one has come forward to tell me that specifically. Mostly it seems like not, so it has been an exercise of understanding…But of course you never know and as an educator, you should never assume.”
She said she was also surprised by her students’ existing knowledge of Canada’s residential school system coming into the project.
“They knew a lot,” she said. “I was really impressed.”
Teaching & Reconciliation
This is Howard’s first year teaching, having recently graduated from her Bachelor’s of Education (BEd) from Queen’s University. Queen’s offers an Aboriginal Teacher Education stream in their BEd program, which includes Aboriginal-specific programming, and application of Aboriginal perspectives and world view to theory and practice. Though Howard was not enrolled, she said a focus on Indigenous education is woven into many parts of the core program, including an entire course focused on the subject.
She said that she sees education as being very closely connected to Reconciliation for future generations in Canada.
“I think for a lot of educators, social justice is a big reason they go into education,” she said. She said that classroom learning is a powerful base for discussing different power dynamics and addressing them.
“This is something that is top of mind for new educators right now,” she said. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished in 2015. And now even more so, Black Lives Matter, anti-racist and Indigenous education in the classroom is something that the new generation of educators — and all educators generally — are focusing on a lot.”
The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund
Chanie Wenjack died on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1966, launching a judicial inquest which concluded that “the Indian education system causes tremendous emotional and adjustment problems.”
The Secret Path Project was released on Tuesday, Oct 18, 2016. Gord Downie passed away himself almost exactly one year later on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, following a battle with cancer.
Amidst this confluence of anniversaries, the Downie-Wenjack Fund, a charitable organization set up as part of Gord Downie’s legacy, is hosting Secret Path week from October 17 – 22, 2020. This includes fundraising events and performances by several notable artists including Buffy St. Marie and Sarah Harmer.
Chanie Wenjack has also been the subject of a Canadian Heritage minute, and has a theatre and Indigenous Studies school named for him at Trent University.