Downie announced to the world that he was suffering from terminal brain cancer in May, before embarking on a summer, Canada-wide farewell tour with his band, The Tragically Hip. Following the tour, he announced plans for a solo album that would include work focusing on the short life of Ojibway boy Chanie Wenjack, a student, or perhaps more appropriately, a victim of the Canadian residential school program.
Chanie Wenjack was 12-years-old when he ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, in 1966. He had been taken, against both his and his father’s wishes, from his home, and moved 400 miles away, as reported by Maclean’s.
How curious it must have been for young First Nations students, ripped away from their families, to contemplate John Steinbeck’s description of Tom Joad’s homecoming in The Grapes of Wrath, a favorite of teachers and sacred text of many of their labor movements, presented as the height of literary greatness, as it likely was to the residential school attendees through the period.
It is generally accepted today that the residential schools represented the worst kind of human experiment. A seeming government-sponsored, humanist thought-project run amok: one where teachers, socials workers, and committees made up of doctors and politicians decided that they knew what was better for a young boy like Chanie Wenjack, and thousands of others, than their own parents.
One can almost imagine the tiny boy, of which the world only has a few grainy snapshots, hosted with the Canadian Encyclopedia, to remember him by, walking along through the Canadian wilderness, all alone, dreaming of running into his father’s arms, just as Tom Joad was portrayed doing in the Steinbeck standard. So misunderstood was his story at the time of his death, Maclean’s published a feature-length article incorrectly referring to the boy as “Charlie” in 1967.
That the residential school system could be engineered by a group of people intelligent enough to be aware their actions were unnecessarily tearing families apart has been scorned by Gord Downie and many others.
Chanie Wenjack died sad, alone, and forgotten, beside train tracks that would later bring the conductor who would find his tiny body. How a country that could build steel tracks that stretch thousands of miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans could fail to prevent the lifeless bodies of children from appearing beside them, surprisingly, was not a question that caught on for several years. It is one that Gord Downie appears to feel has not been asked often enough.
“All of those governments, and all of those churches, for all of those years, misused themselves,” Gord Downie said concerning Chanie Wenjack and the residential school program. “They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities.”
The challenges faced by First Nations communities in North America are almost stupefying in their scope. Each of the children affected by the residential school program has their own story. Each family that has lost a daughter or sister down the senseless hole of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, as reported by the CBC, now being formally investigated by the federal government, has their own story. Maclean’s has gone so far as to label Canada’s treatment of its First Nations citizens as a “race problem” that is “worse than America’s.”
“A national disgrace,” Maclean’s wrote concerning employment, homicide, and incarceration rates among First Nations communities.
Stories of First Nations members contemplating suicide and taking their own lives are regularly reported in the Canadian media. In April, a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat, located on the James Bay coast, when officials became overwhelmed with what MP Charlie Angus described as a “rolling nightmare,” as reported by the CBC.
The latest Neil Young song, entitled “Indian Givers,” which was available for about 24 hours on YouTube before being taken down, appears aimed at shining a spotlight on the Plains Tribes affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The song does not appear to be available for purchase elsewhere as of yet.
“Indian Givers” is reportedly inspired by the work of protestors who have gained enough attention to cause U.S. President Barack Obama to order a halt to construction on a portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened traditional Native American land, as well as water supplies.
“Saw Happy locked to the big machine / They had to cut him loose and you know what that means,” Rolling Stone noted of the Young lyrics. “That’s when Happy went to jail / Behind big money justice always fails.”
Dale “Happy” American Horse Jr. is reported to be a pipeline protestor who was arrested after he chained himself to equipment for almost six hours on August 31.
Dennis and Ralph Zotigh of the Kiowa, Dakota, and Pueblo Tribes.
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]