Putting Truth into Truth and Reconciliation
By Peter Shawn Taylor
November 23, 2017
Fifty-one years ago, he was a young boy who came to a tragic end.
Today he's a symbol for all that was wrong with this country's treatment of Indigenous people.
So why is the story of Chanie Wenjack so full of imaginative fabrication?
At age nine, Chanie, from Ogoki Post in northern Ontario, was sent to live at the former Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora in 1963. He was often homesick and on Oct. 19, 1966, he ran away with two other boys. They stayed at the cabin of the other boys' uncle before Chanie set out alone to walk home, unaware it was 600 kilometres away. His frozen body was found beside railway tracks. He was 12 years old.
These are the known facts, as explained at an inquest, in a 1967 Maclean's article that launched a national conversation on the morality of residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report from 2015.
Taken on their own, these sources provide all the evidence necessary to argue against Canada's residential school policy. Regardless of the intentions of governments and churches in removing native children from their homes — and the policy was intended to improve their lives — the results were often discreditable, ignoble and fatal.
Since 2016, however, new and salacious details have been added to the short life of Chanie Wenjack.
"Secret Path" is a picture book and music album authored by the late Gord Downie, frontman of the Tragically Hip. "Wenjack" is a novella by Joseph Boyden. There's also a short Heritage Minute video by Historica Canada.
All three make the unsubstantiated claim that Chanie was sexually abused at Cecilia Jeffrey school. "Secret Path" and the Heritage Minute further appear to imply it was Roman Catholic priests who did the abusing.
Sexual abuse certainly did occur at residential schools in Canada, sometimes in Catholic-run schools.
But Cecilia Jeffrey was a Presbyterian residential school. It was run by a Cree/Saulteaux principal. And despite its name, it wasn't even a school. Chanie and the rest of the Indigenous children attended public school in Kenora with other children from town. Cecilia Jeffrey was merely a dormitory.
Nonetheless, Downie's "Secret Path" shows native children sitting at desks in classrooms overseen by priests and nuns in standard Catholic collars and habits. (Archival photos reveal Presbyterian staff at Cecilia Jeffrey wore street clothes, not religious attire.)
Later in the book, a priest is shown approaching Chanie's bed at night. Chanie's eyes go wide with fear. The next picture is simply a close-up of the priest's crotch. The Heritage Minute is similar in its implications.
Boyden's book also makes the same claim, although in decidedly more graphic terms.
All three newly-released versions of Chanie's short life allege in unsubtle ways that he was sexually abused. Two seem to suggest Catholics did the abusing.
Yet there's no reliable evidence of the time to support these claims. No suggestion of sexual abuse ever surfaced at the inquest, in contemporary accounts or the authoritative Truth and Reconciliation Commission report from two years ago.
Only in the past year have vague and unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse surfaced. And this has been eagerly incorporated into the imagined work of Boyden, Downie and others. While artistic licence is certainly permitted in art, these works are being presented as documentary evidence in Canadian schools.
"Secret Path" is reportedly being used as a teaching aid in 40,000 classrooms across Canada. It is part of the official curriculum in Alberta and has a major presence in Ontario as well. Last month The Record reported on a 'Wenjack Walk' organized by a local 17-year old high school student after she read "Secret Path."
An entire generation of Canadian children may thus grow up believing Chanie was sexually abused when there is no credible evidence such a thing happened. At a time when real sexual harassment claims are front-page news, this seems wrong. Surely facts matter.
Writer Robert MacBain can take credit for being the first to reveal the invention of Chanie's sexual abuse in the online publication C2C Journal. He's also the author of "Their Home and Native Land," a careful and sympathetic look at native relations in Canada, and was for many years a consultant with the Department of Indian Affairs, often travelling to Kenora and visiting Cecilia Jeffrey school while in operation.
"Downie and others have built up this child into a symbol of all the horrors that happened with the residential school system," MacBain says. "But he is a real person who is entitled to his own story."
MacBain dedicated his book to an actual residential school sexual abuse survivor who's life was destroyed by the experience. "By taking this little boy and twisting him into a sexual abuse victim, they are insulting the memories of hundreds of actual victims of sexual abuse," he adds.
If we owe anything to our past, it's honesty. The story of Chanie Wenjack is tragic enough without embellishment. Canadian schools should simply tell the truth about his short life.
Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean's. He lives in Waterloo.