‘My brother Gord was the kind of guy, he was never afraid of the tough conversations,’ says Mike Downie of the late Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip. Mike was in Port Alberni on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 to present Secret Path, a multi-media show about residential schools and reconciliation. SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News

Mike Downie keeps Charlie Wenjack’s story alive

Downie spreads Secret Path message to Vancouver Island schools

Mike Downie hopes the story of Chanie Wenjack, who died 50 years ago trying to return home from residential school in northern Ontario, will live on through the words of his late brother, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip.

The Downies worked on The Secret Path, a multi-media presentation featuring a graphic novel, 10-song album and animated film that tells Chanie’s story through Gord Downie’s words. The album was released just before Gord died of brain cancer on Oct. 17, 2017.

Mike Downie toured Vancouver Island for a week last month, visiting schools in two different districts and making multiple presentations. In Port Alberni he did three Secret Path presentations in front of a combined 1,100 students from Alberni District Secondary School, and Grade 7 students from Neill, Alberni, Dunn, John Paul II and Haa-huu-payak elementary schools.

“He was wonderful with the kids, taking time talking to them after the show and taking photos,” ADSS principal Rob Souther said.

“He’s a storyteller. There’s clearly the Downie family trait here; they (Mike and late brother Gord) can tell a mean story.”

Downie helped the students focus on the intangible concept of reconciliation, giving them a way to understand it on their level. “It wasn’t one of those guilt and blame kind of shows. It’s hopeful,” Souther said.

The reaction “is going to be different for every student,” he added. “It brings home something that maybe they didn’t understand that well. For me, what Secret Path was, was someone has an emotional connection with Gord and the Hip…it’s refocusing that dialogue in the mainstream.

“It did make it more real.”

Making it real is exactly what Mike Downie hopes to achieve with his Secret Path tour and Legacy Schools program of educators committed to reconciliation.

“When you start to think about it a little more you realize the resiliency of this culture. I hope it’s just going to get stronger. I believe it’s going to become a huge part of what Canadians think of who we are,” Downie said.

“I’m excited these kids are learning about the real history of Canada. My brother Gord was the kind of guy, he was never afraid of the tough conversations. He was a courageous kind of guy. This story of Canada is not very nice. It doesn’t show us in a flattering light, clearly.

“But that doesn’t mean we should turn away from it either. It’s the same thing for a nation as it is for an individual. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror, you’ve got to look at your faults and you’ve got to come to grips with it. If you don’t, there’s literally no chance of making any kind of progress whatsoever.”

Downie said students he has met through his school presentations have a greater awareness of what happened in the past, and says he is hopeful they will build on what they are learning. “It’s going to change this country,” he said. “It’s going to make it a better country.”

Educators from around Vancouver Island also had the opportunity to attend the public presentation of Secret Path on Friday, Oct. 25. Fifty-eight members of the Vancouver Island School Trustees Association (VISTA) were in Port Alberni for two days of workshops and activities, and they all listened to Downie’s presentation.

“I saw it three times and I cried three times,” ADSS vice-principal Jeannette Badovinac said.


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Mike Downie, right, speaks with people who attended his presentation of Secret Path, a multi-media project he worked on with his late brother, musician Gord Downie, that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. Chanie was a boy who died 50 years ago trying to return home from residential school. SUSAN QUINN/Alberni Valley News

Mike Downie, a documentary filmmaker, speaks about Secret Path—a multi-media project he and his late brother, Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, put together before Gord’s death in 2016. Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died trying to return home from residential school. SUSAN QUINN/Alberni Valley News

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