The tragic journey of Anishinaabe boy Chanie Wenjack has now become a national discussion as Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie revealed his Secret Path project following the final Hip concert in August, and part of that included a concert at Roy Thomson Hall this past Friday, where he performed the album portion of Secret Path set to visuals from the accompanying animated film. It was a sobering look at First Nations struggles in Canada, appropriately performed by one of the country’s most visible icons. Downie spent years developing the concept of Secret Path, and is spending his time now getting his message out.
A brief introduction was given by Downie’s brother Mike, who explained the concept to the crowd and the motivation behind it, as well as what Gord was trying to accomplish with the project. He also introduced Chanie Wenjack’s entire family, who were greeted with a standing ovation.
Gord began the performance by pacing back and forth across the stage, mimicking Chanie’s steps on the screen. He then began telling the tale through song, emotion running strongly through him as he alternated between bouts of anger and sadness. Downie would sometimes let out wails of misery that shook the audience to their core. The stark visuals were matched with lights that emulated the harsh weather Chanie walked through, from freezing rain to bone-chilling winds.
It was a chronologically arranged set, with the story told from the moment Chanie was taken away from his family to his death in the wilderness. Songs like “Swing Set” and “Seven Matches” dealt with remembering better times and golden hued memories of Chanie’s family. The story then turned to the experiences Chanie went through in the residential school, and his resulting loneliness and frustration (“I Will Not Be Struck”).
The story unfortunately concludes with Chanie succumbing to the merciless cold, and seeing visions of his family for the last time (“Here, Here, and Here”). The amount of empathy felt from Gord was incredibly powerful- each of the alt-folk songs was imbued with Downie’s trademark lyrical mastery and animated delivery. He had few words between songs, but he reiterated the need for remembrance and reconciliation as Canada moves forward.
The concert was followed by the airing of a documentary that follows Gord as he met with Chanie’s family and learned about the issues that First Nations peoples faced and still faced today. Downie has already left an important legacy in Canadian music culture, and it appears that he is going to leave an even more important legacy in Canadian social affairs. He has brought a long-overlooked plight to the forefront of national discussion, and hopefully put the country on the path to healing.