Tag Archives: Gord Downie

Gord Downie will not make things better

Canadians forgot about Chanie Wenjack before. They can forget about him again.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 16, 2017 • Current Events

IN 1904 CANADA’S DEPARTMENT of Indian Affairs recruited the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Immigration to study the health conditions throughout the western territories of the Indian residential school system. P.H. Bryce’s report, submitted on June 19, 1907 to Frank Pedley, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, did not please his superiors. Not only were Bryce’s meticulous observations unpleasant, they were submitted on the false assumption that the federal government was in fact interested in improving the health and welfare of the children in its care. At the time Bryce was witnessing the substandard living conditions of the residential schools (where hunger, fires, overcrowding, and death rates of 20 percent and higher were common) the future head of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, was a treaty commisioner and the author of a 1905 collection of poetry, New World Lyrics and Ballads. Scott would eventually push the troublesome Bryce out of his job, admitting that

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

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You’ve probably heard of P.H. Bryce, and you’ve also likely seen the Scott quotation. The effort of Duncan Campbell Scott to silence Bryce was a failed one, as such efforts often are. In 1922 Bryce’s medical report was turned into a book, under the fulsome title The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, the Wards of the Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War.” Bryce’s book gave rise to newspaper headlines and to articles in well-circulated Canadian publications like Saturday Night Magazine and presumably also to momentary outrage and scandal. As early as the 1920s the general Canadian public could and did know that (for example) preventable deaths of children had occured in the residential schools at rates between 30 and 60 percent, and that “ a trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.” Bryce not only had pointed figures, he had pointed fingers, specifcally assigning blame over the failure to improve matters to “the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott.”

Today Bryce is considered a rare example of a principled and outspoken critic of the Indian residential school system. He lost his career advocating on behalf of Indigenous children, and having found himself dismissed from the federal government, he took his crusade to the public. As far as I can tell, Bryce’s efforts changed nothing. The Indian residential schools would remain for another 47 years beyond the publication of The Story of a National Crime, and the conditions of the schools would slowly improve, because in the post-war years everything was improving. But the improvements didn’t prevent further, unnecessary deaths.

Chanie Wenjack was a public school student, boarded at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. You have almost certainly heard of him, and of his story, from Gord Downie. You know that he ran away from the residential school in October 1966 (just as many, many children ran way) and that he died of hunger and exposure longing to see the faces and to feel the embrace of his distant family. What you might not know is that Chanie’s story also had a P.H. Bryce figure, in the form of Ian Adams, a journalist whose February 1967 Maclean’s article, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” also received national attention. The article was turned into a chapter of Adams’ 1970 book, The Poverty Wall is Guilt of Greed, Racism, and the Misery of 6,000,000 Canadians. In the meanwhile, considerations raised by the death of Chanie Wenjack were the subject of additional media attention, including a front-page, June 21, 1969 Toronto Star report by Glen Allen. Over and over again, the “plight” of Indigenous people has been brought to the front pages, and to the attention of Canadians, to little if any effect.

In Thunder Bay there was an inquest recently into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth who had come south to attend high school. These young students, like Chanie Wenjack, were boarded many miles from home. In 1966 the jurors of a coroner’s inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack questioned the wisdom of the education system. The jurors (none of whom was Indigenous) were able to see that the “Indian education system causes tremendous emotional & adjustment problems for these children.” They were baffled by the residential school system—specfically by the evident lack of the moral and practical wisdom of removing children from familes to have them educated far from home. The inquest recommendations directed that “a study be made of the present Indian Affairs’ education system and philosophy. Is it right?”—but none of the recommendations went anywhere. As Tanya Talaga has shown, in her book Seven Fallen Feathers, a straight line can be drawn from the residential schools to the death of Chanie Wenjack to the Thunder Bay deaths. Is the Indian Affairs education system and philosophy right? Do the deaths of Indigenous children justify a change in the policy of this Department? As the years go on, it seems more and more likely that Duncan Campbell Scott spoke for Canada and Canadians.

It isn’t true that nothing changes. But the deaths of Indigenous children, attending schools hundreds of miles from family and home, because there are no schools nearby, continue.


And the rediscovery of this reality, over and over, through articles and books and songs, continues also. A generation ago the title of Bryce’s 1922 book appeared on John Milloy’s 1999 A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. A country that had forgotten all about Indian residential schools in the 77 years since Bryce, and in the 32 years since Chanie Wenjack, was once again scandalised to discover its poorly-hidden history. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report in 1996 (John Milloy, author of A National Crime, wrote the RCAP chapter on Indian residential schools) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report in December 2015. In the quarter century between 1990 and 2015, dozens and perhaps even hundreds of memoirs were written by the survivors of abuses in Canada’s Indian Residential School System. Yet somehow a good number of Canadians were shocked and surprised to learn about a piece of their history from a singer in a rock band.

Gord Downie, 1964–2017

His place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 19, 2017 ◈ Obituary

I’VE NEVER BEEN A Tragically Hip fanatic, and that’s a shame, because the two shows that I saw were the kind of show a fanatic would give an arm to have attended.

o-GORD-DOWNIE-facebook.jpgGord Downie established himself as a symbol of Canada

The first performance was in a St Catharines bar called The Hideaway, before The Hip were well-known, in the mid-1980s. We were so close to the stage that the sweat from Rob Baker’s hair was raining down on me and my friends, so we retreated into the crowd. The next and last time I saw The Hip was in 1994, in a small Kingston pub, where the band suddenly turned up for an unannounced free show. At the time I was hanging around with the curator of a local art gallery whose painter boyfriend was a close friend of the fellow who painted the cover of Day for Night. I got a call telling me to get to the pub, now, which I did, only minutes before it filled to beyond capacity.

The Tragically Hip made the most sense to me in bars, the seedier the better. I remember stepping into a Sudbury dive as the chorus to Little Bones played on the radio. I sat in the corner with my watery beer, and the song felt like the soundtrack of the place. In Sault Ste Marie, New Orleans Is Sinking. In Prince Albert, Courage. In Moncton, Ahead by a Century. Then there was Bobcaygeon, a song in a category of its own because some of my earliest memories are of the cottage my family had there, in the 1960s and 70s. We love musicians because they make music, and we love music because it captures and preserves our fondest memories like an amber that you can dance and sing along to.

Every obituary is about its author as well as its subject. We write of others to affirm our values and to praise what we hope to have within ourselves. A life lived is an object lesson, a set of actions and commitments to be appraised, celebrated, or (in some cases) denounced. And one day my friend you will arrive at the place, if you haven’t already, where the obituaries make you think, “my goodness, I’ll be that old very soon” or “she was younger than I” or (as I thought of Gord Downie) “he was the same age as me.” A selfish thought, but also human.

I am tempted to reach for the cliché that Gord Downie died before his time, but of course the time when one leaves this world is by definition his time. He died young, doubtless before he had said everything he wanted to say and before he had made everything he wanted to make. But he was also old enough to have left an indelible and enviable mark upon Canadian music and culture. The depth of his influence was revealed last May when news of a tumour went out to a stunned public. The tour that followed ranks among the most widely viewed and widely discussed in Canadian music history, as the outpouring of sentiment, then and now, attests. Gord Downie managed to do what only a handful of Canadian musicians have done—establish himself as a symbol of Canada. In this, he has joined the company of Gordon Lightfoot and Stomping Tom and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, all of whom, please note, are a full generation older.

Gord Downie committed himself late in life to causes including environmentalism and raising awareness of the Indian Residential School System. At the end, knowing his time was short, there came a final blast of creative fury. He took up the story of Chanie Wenjack, creating a book and album and film about the real-life boy who died trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. He set up the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. He became a prominent vocal proponent of Indigenous people, in a time when there were already numerous books, by Indigenous people, on numerous topics including residential schools.

An October 21, 2016 Walrus article asks, “Why is Gord Downie getting more attention for retelling Indigenous history than Indigenous artists?” The short answer is that Downie, because he was a rock star, could reach an audience few if any Indigenous authors could. That’s an unpleasant truth for those of us who are the Indigenous authors of books about the Indian residential schools, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I remember the day Secret Path arrived to fill the windows of a local bookstore where my book, Residential Schools, wasn’t even stocked. Again, the selfish but also human thoughts. I was glad the Wenjack story would get out, but I wished it didn’t take a pop-culture celebrity to do it. Are we going to have to assign a rock icon to each of the thousands of Chanie Wenjacks?

It’s too soon to say what Downie’s influence and legacy will be as these pertain to his twilight interest in Chanie Wenjack and Indigenous people generally. But his place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established. Gord Downie’s music will live on, and so will the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. May good come of it.