It seemed like everyone wanted the night to be about Gord – except Gord.
Fans wearing “In Gord We Trust” t-shirts. Shouts of “We love you, Gord!” A standing ovation as he came on to stage with the band, before they had played a single note.
But when the Secret Path show finally started, in the National Arts Centre’s cavernous Southam Hall, it was clear that Gord Downie didn’t want you paying attention to him. He wanted you to pay attention to Chanie Wenjack.
Wenjack was 12 when he ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., in the fall of 1966. He had been ripped from his family by the government when he was taken to the residential school and he just wanted to see his father again. So he set off – first with some friends, then by himself – through the 600 kilometres of bush that separated them. He wore thin cotton clothes that would have done little in the freezing rain. He had a map, but he couldn’t read it. He didn’t really know where he was going. His body was found, days later, crumpled and alone by the railroad tracks.
Reading about Wenjack’s story moved Downie to write 10 poems, which became 10 songs, which became a comic book and animated film. In the live show, it’s clear where you’re supposed to look: a giant screen takes up most of the back of the stage, where the movie is projected. The band plays the score below the screen, in dim, shifting lighting that leaves them partially in shadow. The audience sat quietly still in their seats, like they were at a movie and not a concert.
It was a different Downie who took the stage, too, from the one that 10 million Canadians saw in The Tragically Hip’s last concert in August. That Downie lit the stage with charisma and was flamboyant in his hot-pink metallic leather suit. This Downie was quieter, more restrained; the only splash of colour a red poppy pinned to his all-denim Canadian tuxedo.
He sang, it felt like, mostly to his bandmates and not to the 2,000-seat theatre they were playing in. When he performed to the audience, it was to the special group of people in the first few rows: the dozens of Wenjack family members and residential-school survivors that had flown in for the show.
In a short documentary that followed the performance, Downie travels to northern Ontario to visit Wenjack’s surviving sisters. He tells them that, in the middle of the last Hip concert, he suddenly realized just what it meant to have the attention of so many Canadians. He had the responsibility to use his platform while he had it. “What’s going on up there,” in Canada’s North, “ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been,” Downie said in the middle of that Kingston show, with Justin Trudeau in the crowd.
Though Downie started the Wenjack project a few years earlier, it was given a renewed urgency when he was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. Downie said he felt he had to bring attention to the horrific legacy of Canada’s residential schools so, over generations, the country could heal and move on. Proceeds from the sales of Secret Path go to a fund for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
The most powerful moment of the night came at the very end, when the music was done and Mike Downie had finished the thank-yous. After spending the last hour being the ones to tell Chanie Wenjack’s story, the Downies finally turned the microphone over to one of the Wenjack family to speak. Without a band backing her up, Pearl, Chanie’s older sister, sang a haunting Anishinaabemowin prayer that seemed to fill the room.
When she was done, she asked what all the hurt had been for. “My father passed away back in 1987. He never knew the reason why his son had to die. My mother to this day waits for someone to tell her why her son had to go.”
Silence. Two thousand of us stood, frozen, and watched Downie hold Pearl as she gently cried. We didn’t have an answer.