Opinion: Putting truth into Truth and Reconciliation

The Record

November 23, 2017

By Peter Shawn Taylor

[Note: See the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report section on the death of Chanie Wenjack. See also The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack, by Ian Adams, Maclean’s, February 1, 1967.]

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.

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