Shortly after Gord Downie released The Secret Path in 2016, Rob Ferreira and a group of friends decided to retrace the final steps of Chanie Wenjack.
They flew out to Kenora, Ontario, and over the course of a weekend, met with Wenjack’s family, visited the residential school Chanie attended and walked along the railroad tracks he followed in the hopes of getting home. They called it the Walk for Wenjack.
On Oct. 21, Ferreira and friends, including representatives of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, will be bringing the spirit of that walk to Toronto.
“Secret Path Week Presents: Walk for Wenjack” will take place at Evergreen Brick Works on Bayview Avenue and will feature an Indigenous artisan market, speakers, performances and a walk in Chanie’s memory.
Bringing the walk to Toronto is meant to make the experience more inclusive than hosting it solely in Kenora, Ferreira said. A trail will be marked within the Don Valley path system and the walk itself is expected to take about two and a half hours, from 9:30 a.m. until noon.
In addition to sharing Chanie’s story, the walks are part of a bigger vision for Ferreira.
“How do we accumulate enough steps to get Chanie home,” he said.
Many schools across Canada are starting to incorporate The Secret Path into their curriculum as a way of teaching children about residential schools and what reconciliation means as well as shining a light on a part of Canadian history that has stayed in the shadows for generations.
Ideally, he envisions a time when schools and students will host their own “Walk for Wenjack” type events, with children leading the way. Eventually, when the combined lengths of these walks is calculated, they will cover the more than 640 kilometers Chanie would’ve needed to walk from the residential school to his family’s home.
When Chanie left the school in October 1966, at the age of 12, he didn’t know how far away he was from his parents. As The Secret Path says, he left the school by himself, wearing just a jean jacket, and was able to walk about 60 kilometers before he died.
But this event will be more than just a pleasant stroll.
The normal weekly vendors at the Evergreen Artisan Market will be joined by Indigenous artists and crafters, selling their handmade goods.
Jeremy Hoyle, lead singer of Buffalo’s Strictly Hip, will be on hand, performing “The Stranger” from “The Secret Path,” before heading out to Oshawa for the Bawaajigewin Aboriginal Community Center Circle’s fundraiser, another event as part of Secret Path Week.
There will also be screenings of “The Weight of Your Heart,” a film made by photographer Joel Clements during the first Walk for Wenjack in November 2016, in addition to a brand new concert film called “Finding the Secret Path” from Mike Downie, who is scheduled to attend the event and introduce the film.
“This is the last of the Secret Path trilogy,” Ferreira said. “It combines concert footage from Roy Thomson Hall with animation from the movie with behind the scenes footage.”
(If by chance you can’t make it to the event on the 21st, you can also watch ‘Finding the Secret Path’ on CBC this Friday, Oct. 12 at 9 p.m.; it will air again on CBC and CBC.ca on October 14.)
In addition to Mike Downie, Ferreira said there will be other speakers on hand to talk about the Secret Path, the Downie-Wenjack Fund and efforts toward reconciliation. Confirmed to attend so far are Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, on whose ancestral land the event takes place; Bear Standing Tall (Jason Carter) of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, and Sarah Midanik, CEO of the Downie-Wenjack Fund.
Bear Standing Tall will also offer an opening prayer and smudge in addition to traditional drumming.
There will be plenty of raffle items as well, including a gorgeous new hat from Karyn Ruiz of Lilliput Hats, the woman who made all of Gord Downie’s hats during the final Tragically Hip tour. This hat is the one that meant the most to her, Ferreira said, inspired by Chanie and the Secret Path and featuring a print of Jeff Lemire’s painting released after Downie’s death last October. It also incorporates pieces of a jean jacket, matches, feathers, a bone pipe and porcupine guard hairs.