I was intending to blog about the Nativity today, for the season that’s in it. But as I rose, I noticed the most extraordinary story from that beacon of sanity in an insane world, Quillette. Hats off to Toronto author Robert MacBain, who broke the story, and who publishes on Indigenous issues.

MacBain unpicks the history behind Secret Path, first published in September 2016, which has acquired almost a cult following in the Canadian educational system. It purports to recount the real-life story of a young First Nations boy named Charles Wenjack, who tragically died of hunger and exposure aged twelve in 1966. Charles had been placed in a school aged nine.

According to a 1967 article by Ian Adams for Macleans, written following the inquest, one Sunday in mid-October Charles went off with two other boys named MacDonald, who decided to pay an impromptu visit to their uncle (their parents being dead) some 20 miles away.  

A third nephew joined them. It seems their uncle was somewhat nonplussed as to what to do. He offered to take his nephews canoeing, but told Charles that he would have to stay behind, as the canoe could not take five.

Instead, Charles followed them and got to their campsite before they did. They had little food. The following morning, Charles announced that he was going to see his dad, who worked in a remote part of Northern Ontario. The MacDonalds’ uncle advised him to follow the railroad and get food from the men working there.

The weather was bleak and desperately cold (between -1C and -6C), with snow showers and rain. 36 hours later, Charles’ body was found. An inquest jury later made recommendations that there be more school staff to build personal relationships with pupils, and that steps should be taken to board children in private homes.

This was a desperately sad story. So far, so true.

However, a famous rock musician named Gord Downie of the band Tragically Hip had other ideas. He produced an album named Secret Path, accompanied by a graphic novel of the same name, illustrated by Jeff Lemire, and an animated TV version for CBC. 

In October 2016, Downie (who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour late in 2015) and the Wenjack family launched the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This is a registered charity.

There can be no doubt that Downie was passionately committed to the cause of Indigenous people, and that (like some other countries) Canada has had a difficult and sometimes dark history where its residential schools were concerned. Initially residential schools were designed to inculcate French or English cultural values and language, and to assimilate indigenous children. Many such schools were run by religious institutions. From the 1950s, state policy was to integrate indigenous children in the public school system.

Charles and the MacDonald boys boarded at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, a Protestant school, while being educated at the Valleyview Public School close by.  But Secret Path spins a lurid tale of Charles and other children being subjected to shocking physical abuse by priests and nuns at Cecilia Jeffrey – which, in reality, was run by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church. In Downie’s false narrative, Charles is also abused by a paedophile priest.

This is a travesty. As MacBain explains, Charles’ father was a practising Anglican, who wanted his son to be educated in the ways of white people (the boy’s headstone gives his name as Charles, not Chanie, as he is sometimes referred to). 

There is no evidence that Charles was abused by anyone, at either Cecilia Jeffrey or Valleyview. There is no evidence that, in bunking off with friends and then deciding to hike on to see his dad, that Charles was fleeing a hellhole of abuse at Cecilia Jeffrey – or Valleyview, for that matter.

MacBain points out that “by falsely presenting Charlie’s life, Secret Path unwittingly does a disservice to the memory of … all the many other innocents who truly were abused in Canada’s residential-school system.” Their stories have been side-lined, in favour of a rewriting of history. That is also grossly unfair to the staff at Cecilia Jeffrey and Valleyview, both of which institutions are being unfairly maligned.

Yet teachers and educational institutions in Canada are promoting Secret Path as fact.  In February this year, Trudeau’s government donated $5, 000, 000 to the Downie/ Wenjack Fund, “to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story.”

This, as MacBain argues, is unfair to Charles, “who deserves to have his story told truthfully, to not be treated as a sort of historical mascot.” And indeed, there are plenty of genuine cases of abuse in Canada’s residential schools, and victims to be commemorated, without glibly inventing new atrocity narratives.  

Taking such liberties with the truth in the service of an artistic project fundamentally disrespects the memories of children who have suffered in ways that do not fit a prevailing cultural narrative. However well meaning, Downie’s reframing of Charles’ tragic early demise could – ironically – be seen as a form of cultural appropriation.