Gord Downie’s Secret Path has been in the works since his brother Mike heard the story of Chanie (Charlie) Wenjak on the radio.
“I heard it while I was driving,” Mike Downie told Global News. “I heard a radio doc about this 12-year-old Ojibwe boy who was trying to walk home. Running away from his residential school in 1966. Trying to get home. Along the railway tracks.”
In Mike Downie’s mind, “you could just see it.”
“When I heard it, it was just like a vector to the heart,” he said. “If you’ve got kids – my son Will happened to be 12 at the time – you are just like that’s wrong, so wrong.”
WATCH: Mike Downie discusses what he wants Canadians to feel, understand with ‘The Secret Path’
Mike shared the story of the 12-year-old who died from hunger and exposure trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. with Gord. Within minutes, the two were trying to come up with a way to share Wenjak’s story.
They considered asking someone to author the tale which could be turned into a movie but Gord jumped ahead on the project.
“While we were trying to figure that out, Gord starts writing these poems,” Mike explained. “The next thing you know, he is making a record with Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. Dave Hamlin. And they make this incredible 10 song record from the poems.”
While the album only took a few days to make, it was held off being released in order to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Wenjak’s death.
In the meantime, the pair also approached Jeff Lemire to write an accompanying graphic novel for the album.
WATCH: Mike Downie provides health update about brother, Gord Downie
Lemire jumped at the opportunity to work on the project. He pushed aside other work in order to get started.
“Aside from the emotion of [the] story itself and the creative excitement of working with somebody like Gord, the thing that really motivated me to do the book was the chance to educate a lot more people or at least get a lot more people thinking about this or make them more aware of this,” Lemire said.
Downie also played a part in putting together a one-hour documentary that will air on the CBC this weekend.
Mike Downie is hoping the project will help raise awareness and bridge a gap between two Canadian cultures.
“If you are aware and then you care, well then maybe we can take the next step which is time to share,” he said. “Time to share with these two cultures, indigenous and non-indigenous, create a pathway where we try to bridge these two solitudes.”
Pearl Achneepineskum, one of Wenjak’s sisters was in Ottawa with a host of family members Tuesday to see Gord Downie perform his new work.
WATCH: Charlie Wenjack’s sister talks reading about brother in ‘The Secret Path’
She has not had a chance to listen to the album yet but says the graphic novel was truthful to her brother’s story.
“Even though the pictures are very graphic, they do tell the truth,” she said. “(Lemire) got the real picture of what happened.”
“It wasn’t very nice, the way he died. I’m thankful that somebody understood, just by reading.”