When Music and Politics Collide (Gord Downie, Secret Path for Chanie Wenjack review)
Politics and music have always been brothers in arms. The connection between expression and intention can be seen in a number of different cultures and subsets of cultures too. While we cannot know the implication of making music that has a political slant, it is in the emotion that we become effected, and hopefully change for the better.
As I hold my chest in anguish and joy, I can say that this project is worth it.
Gord Downie – Secret Path (for Chanie Wenjack)
released October 18, 2016
Gordon Edgar Downie, better known by his stage name Gord Downie, is a Canadian rock musician, writer, and sometime actor. He is also the lead singer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group we all know and love, The Tragically Hip. As an independant artist he has released five solo albums: Coke Machine Glow, Battle of the Nudes, The Grand Bounce, And the Conquering Sun and now Secret Path (for Chanie Wenjack). On the first three of these records, he was backed by the Country of Miracles; with The Grand Bounce specifically credited to Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles.
And I would be remiss not to mention this, but it wasn’t too long ago (May of 2016) that The Tragically Hip announced on their website Downie had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Downie has responded well to treatment, but unfortunately what he has has been deemed as uncurable. Downie toured with the band in the summer 2016 after reporting his cancer and to support Man Machine Poem, the band’s 14th studio album. The band confirmed that the tour would be the final one for the group and it concluded with a concert at Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, the hometown of the band, and it was streamed live by the CBC, viewed by roughly 11 million people.
Then in September 2016, Downie announced he would be releasing a solo album, Secret Path in October, and dedicated it to Chanie Wenjack. The album was also set up with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire and which Downie also collaborated on, and later an animated film. Secret Path is likely the last studio album we’ll ever see by Gord Downie, but interestingly enough, it is not about Gord Downie, not at all.
Maybe I’m guilty of both loving and hating this album immediately for what it represents, but I think you’ll agree that this is a powerful concept album. Chanie Wenjack was a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian residential school while facing brutal winter conditions outside. This is a very sad thing, and one which has marred the history of Canada without “white Canadians” even knowing the impact of it. We have no way of measuring the impact, because the Canadian government stopped recording the deaths of residential school children in the 1920s, and many original records have been lost or destroyed, but an estimated 6000 children lost their lives in an attempt by local churches (funded by the federal government) to “take the Indian out of the child.”
What Secret Path does is tell the story of Chanie and exposes the history of these schools, which is hardly ever mentioned, and certainly not taught.
It starts with The Stranger, and Downie protests that he is stranger, and that you can’t see him. But as the album unfolds we learn how Chanie escaped in Swing Set, what he may have been thinking as he walked the train tracks in I Will Not Be Struck. As the album enters it’s final moments, Haunt Them, Haunt Them, Haunt Them brings the emotions upwards and lets us know that Wenjack will not be forgotten and that the pain is all too real. It becomes even more real with the closing track, Here, Here and Here and how we know the story plays out. But I admit that the album by itself is not a clear indication of what happened, its in the combination of its parts – the album, graphic novel, film, and marketing by brothers Mike and Gord Downie to bring this to light that we feel the weight of it all.
This is not a solution to a non-history, its the beginning of a lesson and a reconciliation which we all need to participate in. The secret path is not so secret any more, and hopefully within a century we’ll be able to look back on this moment as a turning point in our humanity beginning to swell towards embracing all cultures and protecting the previously alienated. Canada has a future, we just need to follow the unbeaten path.