As many Canadians did on Sunday, October 23rd, I sat down and watched The Secret Path — a film telling the story of Chanie Wenjak, a young Ojibway boy who died at the age of nine fleeing from an Indian Residential School. As a white settler, with all my privilege and colonial baggage, unpacking this experience has been painful, confusing, and without resolution.
The following day, my kids and I travelled to our local bookstore to pick up a copy of the graphic novel version of The Secret Path and Joseph Boyden’s Wenjak, the novella which inspired The Secret Path project. Immediately, my children had critical questions about the Residential School experience which surfaced their tremendous ability to empathize. My youngest was devastated by Chanie Wenjak’s story, and forced me to pause and think as to how his story might heal deep wounds.
Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip who is dying of brain cancer, and artist Jeff Lemire, the creators of the soundtrack and graphic novel, have been knocked about this week for representing a story that isn’t theirs to tell, and for perpetuating a sort of neo-colonialism. In a conversation I had with an elder, there is a hesitation to fully accept Downie’s historical interpretation. I think I get this.
While I understand the critique, I struggle to see how The Secret Path can’t be a small piece in the puzzle toward reconciliation — at least in Winnipeg, Red River, and on Treaty One land.
Winnipeg’s history is a microcosm for the destruction of a treaty relationship, one initiated by Chief Peguis in 1817 when he made treaty with Lord Selkirk. Peguis’ understanding of treaty was one of intense relationship where we are all relations. Selkirk and the HBC, however, saw treaty as a transaction — a ceding of territory. A few decades later, Canada came rolling into Red River with liberalism and progress on its mind. Indians had to be pushed to the side to make way for rail. Residential Schools served as a powerful mechanism for removing people from the land.
While many tried to resist, notably in 1869, First Nations and Métis alike were pushed to the side and the former were incarcerated on reserve. The same railways, by the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, created a profound division within the city, creating a genuine divide between rich and poor. Now in 2016, these same rails and urban sprawl drive a wedge between those who control resources and those who had them taken away.
I am a white settler, but I am also a treaty person. I take seriously my relationship and responsibility with all people on Treaty One land. Treaty is, as Niigaan Sinclair would say, a covenant– it is spiritual.
With this in mind, Winnipeg’s diversity and how we have traditionally controlled it, need to be critically analyzed in these days of reconciliation. A development tax, as Mayor Bowman has proposed, is a step toward reconciliation, calling into question the ghetto-ization of poor people in our city. The removal of the CPR line which divides our city and arguably draws a line in the sand between rich and poor, is one step closer to reconciliation.
The Secret Path and Wenjak, and their potential impact in schools and on Winnipeg itself, are tremendous efforts on the part of people who take reconciliation seriously. The history of Residential Schools should be traumatic for all Winnipeggers and Canadians, and we must provide space for indigenous and non-indigenous people to make sense of this history.
Reconciliation is about recognizing privilege, for those of us who won the lottery of birth, and taking meaningful steps to bring peoples together. Downie and Lemire have made an attempt to do this, fully acknowledging their privilege, in an attempt to bring this country together to some degree.
History, as historian Desmond Morton suggests, is the shared human experience. The Secret Path is a challenge to all of us to honestly break down the barriers of privilege and to speak openly about how we can share our experiences and move on together. Chanie Wenjak’s sister Pearl and Gord Downie, at the end of The Secret Path, offer a powerful glimpse of what reconciliation might look like.
As a leader at a Big Picture Learning school, I am convinced that our responsibility is to nurture Peguis’ understanding of treaty within our learning community and beyond. Our school community has a complexity and diversity that I believe is our strength. Our indigenous learners should feel that their school is safe, fosters their passion, and honours their experience. As a leader and adult at this school, our first step towards reconciliation is to allow the stories of our learners to be heard and to fully welcome their families into this idea of education. Met schools, I believe, are uniquely designed to fully and democratically unpack the inequitable learning conditions of the past and to create opportunities to mend wounds and deepen critical relationships.
The Maples Met School will be screening The Secret Path on Monday, November 21st.